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Health Care, Public Health

Decision-making capacities in older adults

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Studies have consistently shown that younger adults perform better than older, more experienced adults on decision-making tasks, lending credence to the belief that senior citizens suffer from age-related cognitive declines. These studies, however, have typically measured one type of decision-making focused on individual choices, and have not addressed how interconnected decisions — in which one decision predicates future options — are made.

A 2011 study from Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin published in Psychological Science, “With Age Comes Wisdom: Decision Making in Younger and Older Adults,” assessed the decision-making abilities of  28 older adults (with an average age of 69) and 28 younger adults (with an average age of 21). One experiment asked subjects to make decisions in which the current choice was not influenced by previous choices. A second experiment tested a subject’s ability to choose when each choice was informed by earlier ones, and influenced subsequent rewards.

Key study findings include:

  • Younger participants scored significantly more points than older adults in the  choice-independent decision-making task. Researchers speculate that the younger participants outperformed their older counterpart because “they were more efficient in identifying the choices that gave the highest rewards.”
  • However, in progressive decision-making tasks where the consequences of past choices influenced the quality of future choices, “the performance of older adults was more consistent with the optimal strategy.”
  • There was an advantage to being older when the tasks “required holistic learning of the reward structure rather than simple computation of relative reward values for the options.”
  • The younger participants were “slower to develop specific hypotheses about how the rewards in the environment were structured.”

The researchers conclude, “Although aging may lead to some cognitive declines, it may also lead to gains in the insight and wisdom needed to make the best decisions.”

Tags: aging, cognition, senior citizens

    Writer: | Last updated: October 20, 2011

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the Psychological Science study “With Age Comes Wisdom: Decision Making in Younger and Older Adults.”

    1. Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
    2. Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
    3. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)

    Read the issue-related Newsweek article "This Is Your Brain. Aging: Science Is Reshaping What We Know about Getting Older."

    1. How could the study findings be used to support or provide contrast with the article's content?

    Newswriting assignments

    1. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
    4. Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.