They also found, to their surprise, that skill at abstract reasoning played no role at all in a person’s proficiency at solving a crossword puzzle - whether young or old. Simple knowledge - experience - made the difference.
“In other words,” says Salthouse, “some jobs require rapid problem solving, where people are always performing to the limits - professional athletes and air traffic controllers, for example. But many jobs are like crossword puzzles. Novel problem solving is less important than experience.”
Thus, says Salthouse, the study suggests that even though older people may not perform as well in spontaneous activities, they can do the job just as well if they have experience in that field.
Banking on success
But what if they have no experience in a field?
That was an issue raised by Wendy Rogers, PhD, at Georgia Tech, with her study of automatic teller machine (ATM) usage - conducted with Elizabeth Cabrera, PhD, and Neff Walker, PhD, and published in Human Factors (Vol. 38, p.156-166).
Not surprisingly, they found younger adults more likely to use ATMs than older adults are. But in all age groups, ATM users took advantage of more technologies and had more experience with computers. Nonusers avoided ATMs because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable dealing with machines.
During the subsequent two decades, there have been a number of epidemiological studies that have examined the population frequency and predictors of successful aging using various operationalized definitions. Depp and Jeste identified 28 studies with sample sizes greater than 100, published in English-language journals, and including adults over age 60. Across the operational definitions provided in these studies, there were 14 components of successful aging used. Physical functioning and freedom from disability were included in nearly every definition, but no other component was present in more than 50% of the studies. Overall, in 28 studies there were 29 different definitions used for successful aging. Therefore, little agreement existed among researchers regarding the elements of successful aging, beyond physical functioning.
A smaller subset of studies has used qualitative methods (e.g., focus groups, surveys, personal interviews) to identify the components of successful aging. These studies provide an interesting contrast to quantitative studies, which focused more on physical and functional attributes. In qualitative studies, older adults were much more likely to emphasize adaptation to illnesses and other psychological traits (e.g., optimism; sense of purpose) as well as engagement (e.g., social relationships) in their concepts of successful aging. Among qualitative studies, the perspectives of older adults appeared to differ somewhat by the method used (e.g., focus groups emphasized shared experiences related to aging, whereas individual interviews focused more on developmental trajectories) and by culture of origin (e.g., older Japanese people cited belonging vs. American emphasis on independence).
The point, says Rogers: Older adults who don’t use ATMs are penalizing themselves. “They are falling behind in everyday living,” she says.
But older people certainly can lead independent lives - with training, she adds. For instance, home health-care technology has begun to produce devices that would allow older patients to care for themselves. So researchers are now working on ways to make blood pressure and blood glucose devices easy for older adults to operate, says Rogers.
Similarly, she’d like to see psychologists design training programs for these types of new technologies.
“The best predictor of who will use the [home health] machines is someone who used technology previously,” says Rogers. “Those people are more quick to adapt.”
There are even training methods to make it more fun for people to adapt. Lawrence C. Katz, PhD, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University says his easy-to-perform “neurobic exercises” help the brain to not only maintain connections between nerve cells - and thus preserve memory recall - but aid in developing new connections.
Those exercises are at the heart of his book “Keep Your Brain Alive,” (Workman, 1999) co-authored by Manning Rubin.
“The mental decline most people experience is not due to the steady death of nerve cells,” says Katz. Rather, it is the atrophy of connections between nerve cells in the brain. Contributing to such atrophy, he says, are routine behaviors, many of them almost subconscious, that require little brainpower.
“It’s startling to realize just how predictable and free from surprises our everyday lives really are,” he says.
Neurobics is based on two principles, he says: “Experience the unexpected and enlist the aid of all of your senses during the course of the day.”
For instance, he suggests listening to a piece of music while smelling a particular aroma. Or turning the photographs on your desk or the clock on your wall upside down to completely engage your attention. Or take a completely new route to work to break your routine.
In developing his exercises, Katz says it was important not to set a single standard for everyone, “Because some people would give up after repeated failure,” he explains. “The important thing is not to force people to do things that they can’t do, or to provide exercises that bore them.”
Thus, he stresses the offbeat and the element of fun.
“Do something that challenges and engages your mind,” he says, “not because it’s difficult, but because it’s different from what you normally do.”