Surprising: mental speed hardly changes over a lifespan

With getting older you’ll get slower. Well, not when you’re talking about mental speed before 60, it seems.  Mental speed is the speed at which we can deal with issues requiring rapid decision-making and researchers have now established that this does not change substantially over decades.

From the press release:

“The common assumption is that the older we get, the more slowly we react to external stimuli. If that were so, mental speed would be fastest at the age of about twenty and would then decline with increasing age,” says Dr von Krause, a researcher in the Quantitative Research Methods department headed by Prof. Dr Andreas Voß at Heidelberg University’s Institute of Psychology. In order to verify this theory, the researchers reevaluated data from a large-scale American study on implicit biases. In the online experiment with over a million participants, subjects had to press a button to sort pictures of people into the categories “white” or “black” and words into the categories “good” or “bad.” According to Dr von Krause, the content focus was of minor importance in the Heidelberg study. Instead, the researchers used the large batch of data as an example of a response-time task to measure the duration of cognitive decisions.

When evaluating the data, Dr von Krause and his colleagues noted that, on average, the response times of the test subjects rose with increasing age. However, with the aid of a mathematical model, they were able to show that this phenomenon was not due to changes in mental speed. “Instead, we think that older test subjects are mainly slower because they reply more cautiously and concentrate more on avoiding mistakes,” Mischa von Krause explains. At the same time, motor execution speed slows down during the course of adult life: older participants in the experiment needed longer to press the appropriate key after they had found the right answer.

Another finding of the study was that average information processing speed only progressively declined with participants over the age of 60. “It looks as though, in the course of our life, we don’t need to fear any substantial losses of mental speed — particularly not in the course of a typical working life,” says Mischa von Krause. “Generally speaking, we should also note that the test subjects in all age groups included individuals with high and low mental speeds. Our results relate to the average trend.”

Abstract of the study:

Response speeds in simple decision-making tasks begin to decline from early and middle adulthood. However, response times are not pure measures of mental speed but instead represent the sum of multiple processes. Here we apply a Bayesian diffusion model to extract interpretable cognitive components from raw response time data. We apply our model to cross-sectional data from 1.2 million participants to examine age differences in cognitive parameters. To efficiently parse this large dataset, we apply a Bayesian inference method for efficient parameter estimation using specialized neural networks. Our results indicate that response time slowing begins as early as age 20, but this slowing was attributable to increases in decision caution and to slower non-decisional processes, rather than to differences in mental speed. Slowing of mental speed was observed only after approximately age 60. Our research thus challenges widespread beliefs about the relationship between age and mental speed.

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