Does Age Matter ?

Why Older Minds Make Better Decisions

Scientists are discovering that even though memory skills decline with age, the choices we make may improve

By Dawn Carr | April 29, 2013
Dawn Carr is a research associate at the Stanford Center on Longevity. Her expertise lies in understanding the barriers and facilitators of active engagement during later life. Before joining the center in 2012, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a researcher at Scripps Gerontology Center.

The decisions we make throughout our lives about money, work, health and relationships have a tremendous influence on how we age. And as the number of older people increases, not only in the United States but around the world, the decisions seniors make and how they make them will have a significant impact on global economies and societies.

Decision neuroscience is a new field that combines ideas from a range of disciplines — including economics, finance, marketing, psychology, neuroscience, computer science and public policy — to study just how people make decisions. The methods employed and the expertise of the scholars involved have already produced some important discoveries.

The Scientific Research Network on Decision Neuroscience and Aging, based at the Stanford Center on Longevity, was launched with funding from the federal National Institute on Aging in 2010. The purpose of our network is to stimulate the novel research we need to understand how and why decision-making influences aging and support a new generation of researchers collaborating to uncover the mechanisms that shape our decisions as we age.

Older Minds, Better Decisions

Recent research has already challenged what we thought we knew about the capability of the brain. What has become clear, says Dr. Gregory Samanez-Larkin of Vanderbilt University, one of the network’s co-directors, is that despite a decline in some types of cognitive function, “older people often make better decisions than younger people.”

(MORE: Why Companies Need All the Middle-Aged Brains They Can Get)

Consider this scenario, he says: “Suppose you paid $12 to see a movie, and about 20 minutes into the movie, it was pretty clear that you weren’t going to enjoy it. You have a decision to make: Do you stick it out or do you walk out? Older people are more likely to recognize that they’ve made a bad investment and walk away. But younger people are more likely to try to get their money’s worth and stick it out.

“It is a better decision, a more rational decision, to walk out, and older people are more likely to recognize these kinds of ‘sunk costs.'”

By understanding the mechanisms that help seniors make such highly rational, cost-benefit analyses, he says, we may even be able to identify ways to show younger generations how to make better decisions.

How We Focus on What Counts

One study being supported by the network, “Neural Mechanisms of Value-Directed Remembering in Younger and Older Adults,” is examining how changes in the brain’s information processing influences decision-making.

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As we age, we become more selective about what we remember, says Dr. Alan Castel of UCLA, one of the study’s lead researchers. In an earlier study, his team tested older and younger adults’ ability to recall a list of words. The initial findings, as one would expect, showed that younger subjects remembered more of the words. However, when the two groups were provided the same list, but with some words assigned a higher number value than others, older participants were better than younger subjects at remembering the words assigned high scores and ignoring those with low scores.

It appears that as we age, we may become better able to differentiate between important and less important information. “While memory tends to decline as we get older, it seems that older adults selectively remember more important information,” Castel says.

Castel believes that by examining blood flow within the brain during the decision-making process, we can begin to uncover how it recruits the cognitive resources needed to make good decisions. The UCLA team involved in this study — Castel, Michael Cohen, Jesse Rissman, Barbara Knowlton and Aimee Drolet — are using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to examine value-directed remembering by studying blood flow to different regions in the brain. “We are using fMRIs to better understand how the brain changes with age in adaptive ways,” Castel says. Results are likely to shed light on how people process information at the moment they are faced with important decisions.

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While there’s quite a lot of research that shows memory worsens as we get older, perhaps the way we choose what to remember is a means of adapting to changes in brain function. Without question, our strategies for processing information change with age. Decision neuroscience will help us identify ways to facilitate better decision-making. By making smarter decisions throughout life, we may have a greater chance of preserving the resources we need to optimize well-being in our older years.

We may also find ways to help younger people think more like their elders.

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