Aging and Cognition


  • “Normal” vs “Typical” Aging
  • “Young-Old” vs “Old-Old”
  • Heterogeneity
    • Medical illness
    • Education
    • Culture/race
    • Gender
    • General intellect
    • Past & current activity level

General Intellect

  • Linked to Education (learned)
  • Crystallized (increases)
    • Learned knowledge base
  • Fluid (decreases)
    • Reflects maturational growth/decline of neural structures
    • Speed & efficiency of new learning
    • Application of new principles


  • See also Aging and Memory
  • Less efficient encoding due to reduced use of learning strategies
  • More difficulty retrieving info that has been encoded
  • True for both formal testing and “everyday” memory


Areas of Relative Strength

  • Linguistic knowledge (grammar)
  • Lexical knowledge (words)
  • Expressive vs. receptive


  • Naming
  • Precision of verbal description
  • Drawing abstract inferences from conversation
  • Drawing unstated principles from facts


  • Sensory impairment
  • Dentures

Visuospatial Skills

  • Area of Greater Decline
    • Small changes in simple perception
    • Slowed visual processing
  • Complex tasks produce large age effects
    • Visual closure
    • Visual integration
    • Visual construction
  • Vast individual differences

Executive Function

  • Areas of Decline
  • Cognitive flexibility
    • Attentional flexibility
    • Redundant inquiry
    • Difficulty using feedback
  • Application of abstract concepts
  • Caveats
    • Education, novelty, rapid change

General Cognitive Status

  • WNL through 8th decade
  • In early 80s, most are WNL on most tasks

Summary of Cognitive Changes

  • Decline as part of normal aging
    • Fluid intellectual abilities
    • Complex attentional abilities
    • Memory encoding/storage
    • Accessing word knowledge
    • Some abstract reasoning & problem-solving
    • Decline is gradual in the above areas
      • Allows for compensation
      • Of minimal functional significance
    • Marked or Rapid Declines, especially in areas not typically vulnerable to aging, can signal pathology
  • Areas of Preservation
    • Simple attention
    • Primary and tertiary memory
    • Everyday language communication
  • Areas of Probable Growth
    • Crystallized verbal intelligence
    • Knowledge of everyday problem-solving

Correlates of Successful Aging

  • Educational achievement
  • Early educational experiences
  • Physical health Status
  • Exercise
  • Perception of health and control
  • Emotional state/life satisfaction


  • Memory Training and Self Help
    • Mnemonics & external aids for related activities
  • Education
    • Normalizing age-related changes
    • Role of physical fitness


  • Cognitive changes in aging do occur
  • Can be frustrating but not of functional significance
  • Appears related to speed & efficiency with which we process info, access it, and apply new principals
  • Successful cognitive aging requires proactive approach