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Cognitive Changes in Late Adulthood

Rita Clark, Natalie Boyd
  • Author
    Rita Clark

    Mrs. Clark obtained a BA in Education and an MA in Special Education from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and an MA in Counseling from Wayland Baptist University. She has enjoyed teaching and tutoring students at the elementary, high school and college level for 35 years.

  • Instructor
    Natalie Boyd

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

Learn about how information processing in the brain, wisdom, implicit memory, and procedural memory plays a part in cognitive development in late adulthood. Updated: 08/29/2022

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Late Adulthood

The term late adulthood generally spans the time between the mid-sixties and death. Late adulthood is often divided into the following stages:

  • Young-old: ages 65-84
  • Oldest-old: ages 85-99
  • Centenarians: ages 100 and above

During the late adulthood stage, there are changes in the cognitive development of an individual. Cognition refers to the thinking processes of an individual that allow for the retention and comprehension of new material. The various cognitive processes include recognition, memory, judgment, problem solving, and the ability to attend to a specific stimulus for a period of time.

Cognition can be divided into the following areas:

  • Attention: This cognitive process allows an individual to focus on a specific stimulus within the environment.
  • Language: Language and language development involves the understanding and expression of ideas through words or symbols. Language facilitates communication with others and strengthens thought processes.
  • Learning: This cognitive process involves assimilating new ideas, synthesizing information, and combining new information with previous knowledge.
  • Memory: Memory allows the individual to store and retrieve information. Memory is critical to the learning process and allows for the retention of previous information, which can then be a foundation for adding new information.
  • Perception: Perception involves the use of the senses for taking in new information, responding to outside stimuli, and interacting with the environment.
  • Thought: The process of thinking facilitates decision-making, problem solving, and higher-order reasoning skills.

Cognition can be further divided into 2 categories:

  • Fluid Intelligence: Processing new information
  • Crystallized Intelligence: Using existing knowledge about the world and how to interact with the environment.

In general, older adults have slowed fluid intelligence. This can be seen in difficulties solving problems, applying logic, or recognizing patterns in the workforce. For example, an older adult may have increased difficulty planning for new situations and may feel stress when asked to problem-solve a work crisis. Crystallized intelligence, however, is maintained and may even be strengthened in late adulthood. Crystallized intelligence includes the knowledge of facts that remain important in the life of the individual. Cognitive aging does not affect the ability to comprehend new information, especially when the older adult avails themselves of educational opportunities or learning situations.

Many factors affect cognitive development in late adulthood, including physical changes such as hearing loss, a slowing of information processing in the brain, and increased difficulty in focusing and problem-solving ability. The comprehension of new facts is generally not affected by aging.

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Information Processing in Late Adulthood

There are many examples of cognitive changes in late adulthood. Two of the most common characteristics of older adulthood are struggles with memory and attention (focus). Cognitive aging includes processing things more slowly, finding it harder to recall past events, and failing to recall information that was once known.

The most obvious cognitive changes in late adulthood are observed in declining performance on cognitive tasks that require an individual to quickly process information or transform information to make a decision. Cognitive development in late adulthood slows, especially in the areas that require speed of processing, working memory, and executive cognitive function. Executive cognitive functions are the more complex cognitive skills used to control and coordinate the ability to adapt, plan, and self-monitor. Executive cognitive functions also facilitate working memory, time management, organization, and self-control. In the elderly, this decline in cognitive ability may result in:

  • Difficulty planning or organizing activities or schedule
  • Inability to multi-task
  • Increased difficulty with verbal fluency or word recall
  • Increased difficulty processing, storing, or retrieving information
  • Mood swings or socially inappropriate behavior
  • Loss of interest in activities/loss of concern for others
  • Unawareness of the consequences of their behaviors

For aging adults who are still in the workforce, the inability to organize activities or multi-task can affect job performance. An aging teacher, for example, may find themselves needing more time to plan curriculum, may need to write things down in order to recall information, and may find themselves less patient with students. In a business setting, an older employee may find themselves aging out of a position as technology changes and becomes more challenging.

Attention During Late Adulthood

Attention may be defined as the selective focus on a stimulus or aspect of information. The ability to attend to a stimulus is one of the cognitive changes in late adulthood. Many factors may affect the difficulty of maintaining focus. Hearing loss, for example, often accompanies aging and makes understanding speech more challenging. Since more concentration is needed to understand words, this can affect comprehension, especially in noisy settings. As difficulty with memory increases, maintaining focus can also be affected because of the confusion that may result from the memory loss. Difficulty attending can affect work performance and also social skills. Decreased ability to focus may be observed in an aging individual's loss of interest or inability to follow a conversation. This, in turn, affects relationships and the perception of intelligence that others may have regarding the individual.

Memory During Late Adulthood

Memory can be divided into two categories: implicit and explicit.

Explicit memory, also called declarative memory, involves conscious thought and recall. This information must be consciously brought to the attention of the individual in order to be used. Examples of declarative memory include recalling historical events, remembering the time of an appointment, or recalling items on a grocery list. Explicit memory typically declines with aging.

Implicit memory does not involve the conscious recall of information. Use of implicit memory results in behaviors that appear to be automatic, requiring little thought. An example of implicit memory includes remembering how to tie shoes, turn on the stove, or get dressed independently. Implicit memory typically does not decline with aging. One of the most common forms of implicit memory is procedural memory, which is used when an individual performs the steps of a familiar task automatically. Procedural memory is also used to develop new skills, such as learning an exercise routine or taking a class. Procedural memory does not typically decline with aging.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is a cognitive change that happens with aging?

The most obvious cognitive changes in late adulthood are observed in declining performance on cognitive tasks that require an individual to process information quickly or use information in decision-making.

What happens to cognitive development as we age?

Cognitive development is affected by aging, especially in the areas of attention and memory. Cognition changes in older adulthood are often characterized by processing things more slowly, finding it harder to recall past events, and failing to recall information that was once known.

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