The human brains ability to process information declines with age, but knowledge about the world through experiences tends to rise over time. So how do these shifts affect a persons ability to make sound decisions?
It turns out that it depends on the situation. In some decisions, thinking harder about unfamiliar information will produce the best decisions, and older adults are likely to fare less well, says Ellen Peters, courtesy professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and senior research scientist with Decision Research. But in other situations, she said, people make better choices when they rely on emotions and past experiences, and older adults may excel in this condition.
More research is needed to understand how decisions differ across the lifespan so that better advice can be tailored to older adults, Peters said. "We know quite a bit about how the brain processes information, but we dont know a whole lot about how that is going to interact in decisions with experiences and emotional prompts," she said.
Peters is co-author of a paper in which she and colleagues examine existing literature about the aging brain and decision making. Little is known about this important topic at a time when Americans are looking at a fast-growing elderly population, she and colleagues write in the quarterly journal Perspectives on Psychological Science (Volume 2, Issue 1). By 2050, they note, there will be more people older than 65 than those younger than 15 for the first time in history.
"Having a high quality of life requires good decisions, yet we know next to nothing about age differences in decision making," Peters said. "For many elderly individuals, the ability to function independently is a particular concern. By understanding when the elderly make decisions as well as or better than young adults and when their decisions are compromised by declining cognitive abilities, policymakers, family and friends can better tar
Contact: Jim Barlow
University of Oregon