December 1, 2012

Judging Aging

By: Barbara Smith

Wilfred G. van Gorp, professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, spoke at the recent ABA CoLAP conference on the topic of aging, upon invitation of the CoLAP Judicial Assistance Initiative. What follows are some specifics provided by Dr. Gorp.

Certainly, the decline in speed of motor and mental processing constitute the greatest change in function associated with aging; motor speed follows a predictable curve across the lifespan, peaking in adolescence and young adulthood, beginning a clear decline as one enters his or her 30s, and markedly declining beyond one’s 40s. Other factors that affect the speed of processing are an individual’s health status, which may reduce the effect of age on speed by 15 to 20 percent; experience or familiarity with the task, which can reduce the effect of age; and the type of tasks involved––verbal tasks show less effect of age on speed than nonverbal (spatial) tasks.

Normal aging specifically affects episodic memory but not autobiographical or semantic memory. Normal aging affects recall but recognition is far less affected; thus, reminders and notes are extremely helpful to normal older adults.

Executive functions, that is, those consisting of problem solving, dealing with novelty, planning, mental flexibility, discriminating between relevant and irrelevant information, and anticipation of cause-effect relationships are particularly vulnerable to the effects of age, and older adults tend to perform more poorly than younger adults on tasks of concept formation, mental flexibility, and planning. Older adults tend to think in more concrete terms than young adults, and the mental flexibility diminishes with age, with the steepest declines occurring after age 70.

Older individuals with experience have a greater body of knowledge on which to draw upon in decision making, and they tend to favor accuracy over speed and spend more time checking their work for accuracy than younger persons.

To maximize the probability of successful aging, Dr. Van Gorp suggested working to maintain optimal health, including aerobic exercise, which benefits the cognitive functioning, and eating a “Mediterranean Diet,” which has been shown to significantly reduce the risk of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Barbara Smith is director of the New York State Lawyer Assistance Trust. This article originally appeared in Highlights, published by the American Bar Association. Copyright 2011© by the American Bar Association. Reprinted with permission.