Age and Mind: On the Cognitive Incline

30 January 2014


The myth of cognitive decline: researchers devise linguistic simulations to dispel the notion.

For youth, the fear of slipping memories and sluggish thoughts feels far off and irrelevant. The mental descent, widely deemed an inevitable result of pushing into our later years, has been asserted in psychology as a foundational truth in health and aging. But what if these investigations into cognitive performance have been largely skewed?

A team of linguistic scientists from the University of Tübingen in Germany produced a series of simulations that show how as adults age, their performance on psychoanalytic tests changes systematically.

As we age, the rate at which our brains process information steadily decreases beginning in young adulthood with time. The patterns of these slow response changes have long been perceived as primary markers for cognitive decline.

However, previous studies have neglected the cost that processing years of accumulated information can have on an older mind.

Using advanced learning simulations to quantify cognitive development, researchers tested subjects on their vocabulary growth and memory for retrieving paired-associate phrases. Since younger minds can more swiftly retrieve crystalized information, older subjects took longer to sort through their larger neurological database. This delayed process allows the older mind to ignore unimportant cues and instead focus on more valuable information.

By its very nature, this “ignorance” is integral for learning. It reflects increased knowledge but is actually perceived as cognitive decline in current studies.

Aside from cases of neurological diseases, cognitive decline is a myth generated by flawed studies lacking consideration for foundational principles of learning. Bolstered by conventional wisdom, these studies can have a negative impact on the millions of older adults in our society.

A better understanding of these models of learning and information processing could also help people manage their memories more effectively in the future.


Alec Schwartz
Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Major
Dickinson College
Class of 2016




Michael Ramscar, Peter Hendrix, Cyrus Shaoul, Petar Milin, Harald Baayen. (13 Jan 2014). The Myth of Cognitive Decline: Non-Linear Dynamics of Lifelong LearningTopics in Cognitive Science, 6: 5-42.

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