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Aging and cognitive abilities

Aging brings changes in cognitive abilities. While some skills like recall and processing speed may decline, others like implicit memory and recognition remain stable. Interestingly, semantic memory and crystallized intelligence, which involve using knowledge and experience, can even improve until around age 60. Aging isn't all about cognitive decline, it's also about stability and improvement in certain areas. Created by Carole Yue.

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Video transcript

Aging is a natural process, and with it come changes in memory. Most people associate aging with declines in cognitive performance. My mom will say she's having a senior moment when she forgets something, for example. But never fear. Not all cognitive changes in adulthood are negative. Some abilities remain relatively stable and some even improve. So let's start with a positive, abilities that remain stable. First of all, implicit memory stays about the same across the lifespan. In other words, once you've learned to ride a bike that procedural memory is likely to stay with you as you age, barring any brain damage or disease. Recognition memory also stays relatively stable over time, meaning that once you learned something your ability to pick it out of a list later remains about the same whether you're 27 or 67. Now for abilities that improve. Semantic memory improves until around age 60 and only then starts declining. This means that older adults still have good verbal skills and why they make excellent crossword puzzle buddies. A related area in which older adults tend to score better than younger adults is crystallized intelligence, which involves the ability to use knowledge and experience. Since older adults have had more time to gain knowledge and experience, this pattern make sense. And crystallized intelligence is often tested with reading comprehension and analogy tests, so older adults tend to be better at those than younger adults. Finally, older adults tend to be better at reasoning in the face of interpersonal or emotionally-charged problems. Again, the theory is that with their greater experience and knowledge of these types of situations, they are more likely to have been through some similar situation and be able to draw from that experience. Of course, there are some cognitive abilities that decline as we age. Recall becomes more difficult. Although recognition is stable, it's harder for older adults than younger adults to generate responses without cues, like there are in a free recall or sometimes cued recall task. Similarly, episodic memory is impaired. Often memories formed a long time ago will be relatively stable, but forming new episodic memories becomes more difficult as we age. Processing speed slows down as we age, So if you're watching jeopardy with Grandma, she might know just as many answers as you do, if not more, but she'll have a harder time outputting the response within such a short period of time. Related to processing speed, divided attention becomes more difficult. As we age it becomes increasingly harder to effectively switch our attention between tasks, so we become more easily distracted. The bottom line is that cognitive changes in adulthood aren't all negative. Although some cognitive abilities do decline, it's important to remember that in healthy older adults some cognitive abilities will remain stable or even improve.