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Keeping our wits about us

By Jennie L. Phipps ·
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Posted: 10 am ET

My greatest fear is that I will lose my marbles and that every day will be a new adventure.

There was a study not long ago that suggested that as we age, we lose the ability to manage money. The implication was that by the time we are a couple of decades into retirement, we are likely to be unable to keep our accounts straight and could be sending our money off to scam artists on late-night TV.

All of this adds a frightening element to retirement planning, so I was grateful to read about a study from my alma mater, The Ohio State University,  suggesting that growing older doesn't necessarily mean our brains process things less accurately.

The researchers compared speed and accuracy among children, young adults and older people on a test of fairly simple word and number skills. The study found that young adults were faster and more accurate than children. Older adults were the most accurate of all, but much slower. However, the researchers concluded that the slowness was at least partially because older adults didn't want to make mistakes. When older people were encouraged to speed up, they did -- without losing much in the way of accuracy.

"For these simple tasks, decision-making speed and accuracy is intact even up to 85 and 90 years old," says Gail McKoon, professor of psychology at Ohio State and co-author of the study.

Older people are "slow but still accurate," says Roger Ratcliff, professor of psychology at Ohio State University and co-author of the studies. "They adopt a more conservative decision-making criteria. They want more evidence before they make a decision," and that makes them slower.

Ratcliff says the research team is doing further study on this issue, including looking for ways to mitigate mental slowdown beyond age 85.

I hope he hurries up and finds the answer before I need it.

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1 Comment
January 06, 2012 at 12:56 pm

As soon as I heard about this "study" (in para. 2), I wondered about (a) the incentives for the study, and (b) how the "study results" were displayed/interpreted. Financial planning was a lucrative business, no, until a few years ago? And hasn't the industry's revenue been constrained lately? Broad generalizations (especially those that inculcate fear) are always suspect, to me, at least. My brain and critical thought processes still (mostly :) work, and I've also spent lots of time with older folks, some of whom were quite sharp well into their 90s.