Elders still wiser, study shows

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Older people make better decisions than younger people overall, according to a new study released by psychologists at UT and Texas A&M University.

Researchers led by Todd Maddox and David Schnyer, professor and associate professor of psychology at UT, and Darrell Worthy, assistant professor of psychology at Texas A&M University, found that people over 60 years old learn from situations and make better long-term decisions than young adults in their late teens and early twenties.

“When past behavior influences choice of decision, older adults make choices that yield better long term results than young adults,” Worthy said. “Our study doesn’t at all suggest that older people have poor memory compared to young adults.”

During the study groups of participants were asked to make decisions in which the only decision-making factor was the short-term results of good decision making. Young adults excelled at this portion of the study. However, when participants were asked to decide between an oxygen system on planet Mars that offered better immediate results and poor long-term results or poor immediate results and better long-term results, older adults outperformed their younger counterparts.

Theatre and dance junior Graciela Reyna said to her, it appears as obvious common sense that older people would be better problem solvers.

“I feel almost like that’s stating the obvious,” Reyna said. “The longer you live, the more experiences you have, and you would make better judgements. It’s a product of life.”

Karen Fingerman, professor of human development and family sciences, said typical stereotypes about aging people losing mental capabilities are a product of a system of mental gains and losses that occur when people age.

“People do not lose their mental abilities as they get older,” Fingerman said. “You have gains and losses. Older adults usually do better in knowledge because they have more knowledge. People often lose their speed as they get older.”

Stereotypes about aging and loss of mental capability result from older people noticing the losses but not their accumulated gains, Fingerman said.

“We have stereotypes,” Fingerman said. “If you even go to the grocery store and look at the birthday cards you can tell that. It’s because there’s a lot of times that people notice the loss of speed but not the gains of knowledge.”

Researchers for the study hypothesize that the cause of this phenomenon of brain change with age is the deterioration of the ventral striatum, a part of the brain utilized by young adults. As the ventral striatum deteriorates, the researchers theorize that the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that controls rational and deliberate thoughts, compensates for it, Worthy said.

To test this theory, researchers have begun using neuro-imaging technology to track which parts of the brain react in the decision-making process, Worthy said.

“Our preliminary data do support these conclusions,” Worthy said. “We are finding older adults are having more activity in the studies.”

Printed on Wednesday, September 21, 2011 as: Study shows adults make better decisions