Cognitive Development in Late Adulthood

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  • 0:02 Late Adulthood
  • 0:47 Informaton Processing
  • 4:28 Wisdom
  • 6:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Many people are aware of some of the memory problems older adults have, but did you know that they become better at some types of thinking? In this lesson, we'll examine the positive and negative cognitive changes in late life.

Late Adulthood

Kirstie is going to be 75 next year and life is pretty good. She sees her grandchildren regularly and plays bridge with her friends and just generally has a good life. But sometimes, Kirstie worries that something's wrong. She doesn't seem to be able to concentrate as well as she used to, and her memory isn't as sharp as it was when she was younger. She wonders if this is a normal part of aging or if there's something wrong with her.

Kirstie is in late adulthood, or the time of life after age 65. During that time, people often notice changes in their cognition, or thinking processes. Let's look closer at the problems and benefits of aging when it comes to cognitive skills.

Information Processing

Kirstie can't remember as much as she used to, and she sometimes has trouble concentrating. She's not alone; as people age, their information processing, or the way that they make sense of the world around them, often takes a hit. To understand what information processing is, think about Kirstie sitting on a park bench. There are all sorts of sights for her: the blue, blue sky, the budding trees and flowers, the kids playing Frisbee, even that inchworm that's slowly making its way across the path in front of her bench.

At the same time, Kirstie's ears are filled with the sounds of the park: the birds chirping, dogs barking, and the 'thwack thwack' of runners' footsteps as they jog by. Kirstie is also smelling the scent of the plants around her and also maybe the scent of the dogs' poop! She is feeling the warmth of the sun on her face and the hard park bench digging into the backs of her thighs.

All of these things (the sights, sounds, scents, and so on) are bits of information that are coming at Kirstie. And every second, that information is changing, as what she sees, hears, smells, and feels changes. Every day, we are bombarded with information about the world around us, and we have to sort through that information to pick out what's important and what's not. The problem is that, as with Kirstie, this becomes harder as we age.

There are many elements to information processing, but two related ones that people often struggle with in late adulthood are attention and memory. Attention is just what it sounds like: which pieces of information a person pays attention to. If Kirstie is focused on the inchworm at her feet, she will probably block out the kids playing Frisbee. Likewise, if she's paying attention to the Frisbee players, she probably won't notice the birds chirping.

Attention is important because it allows us to block out extraneous information and focus on what's important. Imagine reading a book in a room. There's a ton of extra information that you don't need at that moment: the color of the walls or the pattern on the rug, sounds from an air conditioner or from outside the window, a cool breeze blowing across your skin or the feel of the chair beneath you. If you paid attention to all of that information, you wouldn't be able to focus on the content of the book!

Attentional processes are directly linked with another aspect of information processing: memory. You can't remember something if you didn't give it your attention. If you're paying attention to the feel of the chair beneath you and not to the content of the book you're reading, you won't remember what you read! For the most part, memory also declines with age. For example, Kirstie used to be able to name all the state capitals and recite her high school's fight song. But lately, Kirstie has trouble even remembering what she did that morning, much less some song she learned decades ago!

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