During middle age, many people notice that they aren’t as mentally sharp as they once were. During this lesson, we’ll look at cognitive abilities that decline in middle adulthood, including information processing and working memory.
Cheryl is in her late 40s, and in many ways, her life is good.
She loves her job and runs her entire department. She makes good money and has a beautiful home with her husband.But Cheryl has noticed an alarming trend recently: she isn’t as mentally spry as she used to be. She’s finding it harder and harder to quickly remember things.
For example, she used to be able to answer trivia questions or solve puzzles really quickly, sometimes in just a few seconds. But now, it takes her a lot longer.Cheryl is in middle adulthood, also known as middle age, which is the time between age 40 and age 65.
During this time, many people notice that their cognitive abilities, or thinking skills, are not as good as they used to be. Let’s look closer at two particular cognitive abilities that people often struggle with in middle adulthood: information processing and memory.
Every day, the world bustles around Cheryl. Everywhere she looks, she is inundated with information: the sights and sounds of the world around her, the content of emails and websites, the things that her coworkers are saying to her. All of this is information, and Cheryl has to sort through it all.Information processing is the way that we make sense of the information our brains receive. Like Cheryl, we are all presented with lots of information all the time.
Think about sitting in a quiet room. There’s still a lot of information there: the sight of the things in the room, the low hum of an air conditioner or refrigerator, perhaps some sounds from outside the window. All of this is information, and that’s just in a quiet room!One aspect of information processing that declines in middle age is the speed at which we are able to process and react to information. For example, if Cheryl is walking down the street and sees a ball flying at her, she might not be able to get out of the way in time because her information processing is slower than it was when she was in her 20s.
Remember that Cheryl used to be able to answer trivia questions and solve puzzles really quickly but recently has noticed that she’s a lot slower. This is partially due to the slower information processing speed of middle age.Besides speed, another aspect of information processing that declines in middle adulthood is that of attention. As people age, it becomes harder to focus on what’s important. To understand what I mean, imagine that you are studying in a coffee shop. There’s a lot going on! There’s noise from the coffee makers and from people ordering their coffee and there’s all sorts of colors and sights. You have your study materials in front of you, and it’s your job to tune out what’s not important and focus on what is.
So, the sights and the sounds of the coffee shop fade as you focus in on your study materials. This involves giving your attention to what’s important.But as people age, it becomes harder and harder to block extraneous information and focus on what’s important. For example, Cheryl used to be able to focus in on the most important parts of a report. Even if the report went on and on about extraneous things that really weren’t that important, she could still zoom in on what mattered.But lately, she’s found it very hard to block out all the extraneous ‘chatter’ and focus on what matters.
Instead, she finds herself with a lot of information floating around, and she can’t put her attention where it needs to be.
So, Cheryl is struggling a bit with the information processing part of cognition. But that’s not all there is to thinking skills. A big cognitive skill is memory.
There are many types of memory. One way to divide memory up is to look at long-term memory, or things that were learned or experienced more than a few minutes ago, and working memory, or things that were learned or experienced a few seconds or minutes ago.In middle adulthood, people, like Cheryl, are generally okay with long-term memory, but they begin to experience problems with their working memory.
Imagine working memory as a single drawer in a vast space filled with filing cabinets.Working memory, like that one drawer, is much more limited than long-term memory because it can hold only a few things at a time. Perhaps because working memory is filled up with non-relevant information (because Cheryl and people like her have problems focusing), they begin to have trouble with their working memory.
For example, often when Cheryl is reading, she’ll get to the end of a sentence or a paragraph and not remember how it started. She used to be able to remember things like that easily without extra work, but nowadays, it’s difficult for her because of issues with her working memory.
Middle adulthood is the time of life between ages 40 and 65. During that time, some people experience a slight dip in cognitive abilities. Specifically, their information processing abilities begin to falter when it comes to speed and attention, and they struggle with problems with working memory.
You will have the ability to do the following after watching this video lesson:
- Summarize what happens to a person’s cognitive abilities during middle adulthood
- Define information processing and explain how it declines in middle adulthood
- Differentiate between long-term memory and working memory and how each are affected in middle adulthood