Cognitive Aging

Cognitive Aging and Associated Difficulties

When old age looms and people grow older, even though their general knowledge remains stable or even increases, they tend to experience a reduction in cognitive ability Opens in new window (Park, 2000).

Specifically, Cognitive Aging features declines in information processing Opens in new window speed, working memory, and inhibition function.

For example, Salthouse (1996) pointed out that one of the factors accounting for age-related decline in cognitive performance was a general slowing of processing speed of mental operation with aging.

This processing speed slowness could lead to loss of information during the cognitive processing, because the cognitive operation may take a longer time to process the information than it could be retrieved.

Similarly, when people grow older, their working memory capacity—defined as the amount of online cognitive resources that provide simultaneous storage and processing of information—declines, resulting in older adults performing worse than young adults on those cognitive tasks requiring both processing and storing information (Park, 2000).

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Hasher and Zacks (1988) also found that, with aging, people have more trouble inhibiting their attention to irrelevant information and concentrating on relevant information, which makes it difficult for older adults to perform tasks that require long periods of mental concentration.

Overall, the cognitive aging literature suggests that age-related reduction in cognitive resources may lead to more difficulty for older workers in dealing with high mental load tasks, which require retention of large amounts of information or rapid cognitive processing (Wang & Chen, 2006).

Research has also shown that to maintain the same level of task performance, older workers have to expend greater effort on these types of tasks than younger adults (Bunce & Sisa, 2002).

Given these declines, it may appear that older employees in their late career stages tend to have greater difficulty than younger employees performing tasks that require retention of large amounts of information or that require rapid cognitive processing.

This difficulty may be a major reason why people make career path changes in their late career stages. This is especially true for certain occupations. For example, air traffic controllers usually retire from their jobs when they are 45 years old due to the high cognitive demands of the job.

However, it should also be recognized that the effect of cognitive reduction may not start to interfere with well-mastered job activities until one reaches 60 or even older age (Abraham & Hansson, 1995; Colonia-Willner,1998).

To deal with the difficulties resulting from cognitive aging, it is important for mid and late career workers to receive training in order to take advantage of new technologies to assist their work.

Often time, applications of new technology (e.g., enterprise resource planning systems) relieve workers from excessive information processing by organizing and automating routine productive processes, thereby decreasing the cognitive load imposed on workers.

In addition, organizations may also want to provide more breaks for older workers to relieve them from the potential negative effects of performing cognitive intense tasks.