Alternative Reason for Age-Related Cognitive Decline

As adults age, their performance on many psychometric tests changes systematically, a finding that is widely taken to reveal that cognitive information-processing capacities decline across adulthood. Contrary to this, we suggest that older adults'; changing performance reflects memory search demands, which escalate as experience grows. A series of simulations show how the performance patterns observed across adulthood emerge naturally in learning models as they acquire knowledge. The simulations correctly identify greater variation in the cognitive performance of older adults, and successfully predict that older adults will show greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences in the properties of test stimuli than younger adults. Our results indicate that older adults'; performance on cognitive tests reflects the predictable consequences of learning on information-processing, and not cognitive decline. We consider the implications of this for our scientific and cultural understanding of aging.


The results reported here indicate that older and younger adults'; performance in psychometric testing are the product of the same cognitive mechanisms processing different quantities of information: Older adults'; performance reflects increased knowledge, not cognitive decline. In discussing this finding, a question continually arises: “Learning appears to predict linear patterns of change, but cognitive decline really kicks in at around 60 or 70: how do you explain this?”

In answering this, we first note that as people age, it has been found that they encode less contextual information in memory (Naveh-Benjamin & Old, 2008). Although this is usually taken to indicate that the processes that “bind” contextual information in memory decline with age, learning theory predicts that experience will increasingly make people insensitive to a great deal of background context, simply because ignoring uninformative cues is an integral part of learning (Kruschke, 1996, 2001, 2005; Ramscar et al., 2013a; Rescorla, 1968).

Learning is also sensitive to the environment, and its predictions change with it: If a common environmental change like retirement was to systematically reduce the variety of contexts people encounter in their lives, learning theory predicts that the amount of contextual information they learn will drop further, as the background rates of cues in remaining contexts rise (Kruschke, 1996; Ramscar et al., 2013a). It follows from this that if people were to increasingly spend time in environments where any cues have high background rates already (family homes), any effects arising from their cumulative experience of learning to ignore task irrelevant contextual (background) cues will be exacerbated. In other words, because discriminative learning by its very nature reduces sensitivity to everyday context (Kruschke, 1996; Ramscar et al., 2013a; Rescorla & Wagner, 1972), retirement is likely to make memories harder to individuate and more confusable, absent any “cognitive declines,” simply because retirement is likely to decrease contextual variety at exactly the time when the organization of older adults' memories needs it most.


The idea that as we grow older, our brains have more information to sort through, which makes it take longer to find the data we need.

Folksonomies: information entropy cognition

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Educational psychology (0.988488): dbpedia | freebase
Ageing (0.845345): dbpedia | freebase
Psychometrics (0.797956): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Psychological testing (0.796636): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc | yago
Knowledge (0.743618): dbpedia | freebase
Cognition (0.729169): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Memory (0.709976): dbpedia | freebase
Psychology (0.698815): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc

 The Myth of Cognitive Decline: Non-Linear Dynamics of Lifelong Learning
Periodicals>Journal Article:  Ramscar, Hendrix, Shaoul, Milin, Baayen ( 24 October 2013), The Myth of Cognitive Decline: Non-Linear Dynamics of Lifelong Learning, Topics in Cognitive Science, 6 (2014) 5–42, Retrieved on 2014-02-02
  • Source Material []
  • Folksonomies: cognition


    30 NOV -0001

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