We are all familiar with the saying "older but wiser." And new research may prove this to be true. A new study published in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science suggests that as we age, our brain functions slow down as a result of greater experience, not because of cognitive decline.
According to the research team, led by Dr. Michael Ramscar of the University of Tuebingen in Germany, the reason why brains of older adults slow down is because they take longer to process constantly increasing amounts of knowledge.
They argue that this process is frequently confused with cognitive decline.
To reach their findings, the investigators programmed computers to act like humans.
Each day, the computers "read" a certain amount of data while processing new information.
The computers then carried out a series of tests using measures that are traditionally used to determine cognitive abilities. These included word recall tests.
Increased knowledge, not cognitive decline
The researchers found that when they limited the computers to reading a set amount, the cognitive performance of the computers was similar to the cognitive performance expected from a young adult.
However, the investigators discovered that when the same computers read unlimited data - the equivalent to a lifetime of experiences - their cognitive performance resembled that of an older adult.
The researchers say that the cognitive performance of the computers slowed down, not because of a decline in processing capacity, but because the unlimited data increased their database, meaning they needed more time to process the information.
Explaining what their findings mean, the study authors write:
"The results reported here indicate that in older and younger adults, performance in psychometric testing are the product of the same cognitive mechanisms processing different quantities of information. Older adults' performance reflects increased knowledge, not cognitive decline."
'False assumptions' about the aging mind
The investigators say that their findings suggest that society needs to rethink what is meant by the "aging mind," as "false assumptions" may deprecate the aging population and lead to wastage of public resources on problems that do not exist.
Researchers say that the brain slows as we age because of life experience, not cognitive decline.
"Imagine someone who knows two people's birthdays and can recall them almost perfectly," suggests Dr. Ramscar. "Would you really want to say that person has a better memory than a person who knows the birthdays of 2,000 people, but can 'only' match the right person to the right birthday nine times out of ten?"
The researchers note that many of the measures used to determine cognitive ability are "flawed," but technology, such as the computers used in this study, may be able to aid improvements in this area.
Dr. Ramscar adds:
"Technology now allows researchers to make quantitative estimates about the number of words an adult can be expected to learn across a lifetime, enabling the team to separate the challenge that increasing knowledge poses to memory from the actual performance of memory itself."
This is not the only study to link greater experience to functions of the aging brain. Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that the life experience of older adults offsets age-related cognitive decline.