Positive perceptions of aging have important benefits for older adults’ well-being. French researchers put cognitive ability age stereotypes to the test in a study of how performance on a verbal working memory task differs between older and younger adults.
A group of 18 younger adults (average age 22) and 15 older adults (average age 66) completed a computerized test of their verbal working memory while wearing an elastic cap that recorded brain activity via electroencephalographic (EEG) signals. The task was to indicate whether or not a sentence was grammatically correct. Specifically, the pronouns used in the sentence could match or mismatch the gender of someone named in the sentence. Additionally, the pronoun could be presented either before (cataphoric) or after the noun (anaphoric).
Regarding accuracy, older adults actually outperformed younger adults in the cataphoric condition, while performance in the anaphoric condition showed no age-related differences. In terms of reaction time, older adults responded just as quickly as younger adults when pronouns were mismatched, regardless of cataphoric or anaphoric conditions, but were slightly slower than younger adults when the pronouns matched. Additionally, participants who scored lower on verbal short-term memory were less accurate when pronouns were mismatched, but this had a stronger effect in older adults.
The brain wave data also suggested that older adults have resilient neural processing. Overall, EEG patterns were similar across older and younger adults. The majority of processing tended to occur in the central regions of the brain; however, there was a slight difference between groups in the anaphoric condition—older adults showed additional activity in frontal regions of the brain.
This study provided more evidence that cognitive abilities do not necessarily decline with age. In fact, older adults outperformed younger adults when pronouns occurred after the named individual. The neural activity data supported this outcome, and even showed that older adults may recruit additional brain regions to aid in processing verbal tasks. It will be important for future research to replicate these findings and to investigate an older sample, perhaps in their mid-70s to early 80s.
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Arslan S, Palasis K, & Meunier F. Electrophysiological differences in older and younger adults’ anaphoric but not cataphoric pronoun processing in the absence of age‑related behavioural slowdown. Scientific Reports (2020) 10(19234).