Working memory as a temporary buffer for cognitive processing is an essential part of the cognitive system. Its capacity and select aspects of its functioning are age sensitive, more so for spatial than verbal material. Assumed causes for this decline include a decline in cognitive resources (such as speed of processing), and/or a breakdown in basic control processes (resistance to interference, task coordination, memory updating, binding, and/or top-down control as inferred from neuroimaging data). Meta-analyses suggest that a decline in cognitive resources explains much more of the age-related variance in true working memory tasks than a breakdown in basic control processes, although the latter is highly implicated in tasks of passive storage. The age-related decline in working memory capacity has downstream effects on more complex aspects of cognition (episodic memory, spatial cognition, and reasoning ability). Working memory remains plastic in old age, and training in working memory and cognitive control processes yields near transfer effects, but little evidence for strong far transfer.
Nicole D. Ayasse, Alexis R. Johns, and Arthur Wingfield
The comprehension of spoken language is a complex skill that requires the listener to map the acoustic input onto the meaningful units of speech (phonemes, syllables, and words). At the sentence level, the listener must detect the syntactic structure of the utterance in order to determine the semantic relationships among the spoken words. Each higher level of analysis is thus dependent on successful processing at the prior level, beginning with perception at the phoneme and word levels.
Unlike reading, where one can use eye movements to control the rate of input, speech is a transient signal that moves past the ears at an average rate of 140 to 180 words per minute. Although seemingly automatic in young adults, comprehension of speech can represent a greater challenge for older adults, who often exhibit a combination of reduced working memory resources and slower processing rates across a number of perceptual and cognitive domains. An additional challenge arises from reduced hearing acuity that often occurs in adult aging. A major concern is that, even with only mild hearing loss, the listening effort required for success at the perceptual level may draw resources that would ordinarily be available for encoding what has been heard in memory, or comprehension of syntactically complex speech. On the positive side, older adults have compensatory support from preserved linguistic knowledge, including the procedural rules for its use. Our understanding of speech perception in adult aging thus rests on our understanding of such sensory-cognitive interactions.
Scott P. Johnson
Visual scenes tend to be very complex: a multitude of overlapping surfaces varying in shape, color, texture, and depth relative to the observer. Yet most observers effortlessly perceive that the visual environment is composed of distinct objects, laid out across space, each with a particular shape that can be inferred from partial views and incomplete information. Moreover, observers generally expect objects to be continuous across space and time, to have a certain shape, and to be solid in three-dimensional (3D) space. The cortical visual system processes information for objects first by coding visual features, then by linking features into units, and last by interpretation of units as objects that may be recognizable or otherwise relevant to the observer. This way of conceptualizing object perception maps roughly onto processes of lower-, middle-, and higher-level visual processing that have long formed the basis for investigations of visual perception in adults, as well as theories of object perception, the ways visual deprivation reduces object perception skills, and the developmental time course of object perception in infancy.
Christopher Hertzog and Taylor Curley
Metamemory is defined as cognitions about memory and related processes. Related terms in the literature include metacognition, self-evaluation, memory self-efficacy, executive function, self-regulation, cognitive control, and strategic behavior. Metamemory is a multidimensional construct that includes knowledge about how memory works, beliefs about memory (including beliefs about one’s own memory such as memory self-efficacy), monitoring of memory and related processes and products, and metacognitive control, in which adaptive changes in processing approaches and strategies may be contemplated if monitoring of memory processes (encoding, retention, retrieval) indicates that alternative strategies may be required. Older adults generally believe that their memory has declined and that, on average, they have less control over memory and lower memory self-efficacy than young and middle-aged adults. Many but not all aspects of online memory monitoring are well preserved in old age, such as the ability to discriminate between information that has been learned versus not learned. A major exception concerns confidence judgments concerning whether recognition memory decisions are correct; older adults are more prone to high-confidence memory errors, believing they are recognizing something they have not encountered previously. The evidence regarding metacognitive control is more mixed, with some hints that older adults do not use monitoring to adjust control behaviors (e.g., devoting more time and effort to studying items they believe have not yet been well-learned). However, any age deficits in self-regulation based on memory monitoring or adaptive strategy use can probably be addressed through instructions, practice, or training. In general, older adults seem capable of exerting metacognitive control in memory studies, although they may not necessarily do so without explicit support or prompting.
Markus Wettstein, Hans-Werner Wahl, and Michael Schwenk
When referring to life space, researchers usually mean the area in which individuals move in their everyday lives. Life space can be measured based on different approaches, by means of self-reports (i.e., questionnaires or diaries) or by more recent approaches of technology-based objective assessment (e.g., via Global Positioning System [GPS] devices or smartphones). Life space is an important indicator of older adults’ out-of-home mobility and is meaningfully associated with autonomy, well-being, and quality of life. Substantial relationships between life space and socio-demographic indicators, health, and cognitive abilities have been reported in previous research. Future research on life space in old age will benefit from a more comprehensive and stronger interdisciplinary perspective, from taking into account different time scales (i.e., short- and long-term variability), and from considering life space as a multidimensional measure that can be best assessed based on multi-method approaches with multiple indicators.
Alison Chasteen, Maria Iankilevitch, Jordana Schiralli, and Veronica Bergstrom
In 2016, Statistics Canada released the results of the most recent census. For the first time ever, the proportion of Canadians aged 65-plus years surpassed the proportion aged 15 and under. The increase in the proportion of older adults was viewed as further evidence of the faster rate of aging of Canada’s population. Such demographic shifts are not unique to Canada; many industrialized nations around the world are experiencing similar changes in their populations. Increases in the older adult population in many countries might produce beneficial outcomes by increasing the potential for intergenerational contact and exposure to exemplars of successful aging. Such positive intergenerational contact could counter prevailing age stereotypes and improve intergenerational relations. On the other hand, such increases in the number of older adults could be viewed as a strain and potential threat to resources shared with younger age groups. The possibility of increased intergenerational conflict makes it more important than ever before to understand how older adults are stereotyped, how those stereotypes can produce different kinds of biased behavior toward them, and what the impact of those stereotypes are on older adults themselves.
Social-cognitive age representations are complex and multifaceted. A common stereotype applied to older people is one of warmth but incompetence, often resulting in paternalistic prejudice toward them. However, such benevolent prejudice, characterized by warm overtones, can change to hostile bias if older adults are perceived to violate prescriptive norms about age-appropriate behavior. In addition to coping with age prejudice, older adults also have to deal with the deleterious effects of negative age stereotypes on their day-to-day function. Exposure to negative aging stereotypes can worsen older adults’ cognitive performance in a number of contexts. As well, age stereotypes can be incorporated into older adults’ own views of aging, also leading to poorer outcomes for them in a variety of domains. A number of interventions to counteract the effects of negative aging stereotypes appear promising, but more work remains to be done to reduce the impact of negative aging stereotypes on daily function in later life.
Aidan Moran and John Toner
We are constantly bombarded by information. Therefore, during every waking moment of our lives, we face decisions about which stimuli to prioritize and which ones to ignore. To complicate matters, the information that clamors for our attention includes not only events that occur in the world around us but also experiences that originate in the subjective domain of our own thoughts and feelings. The end result is that our minds can consciously attend to only a fraction of the rich kaleidoscope of information and experiences available to us from our senses, thoughts, memories, and imagination. Attentional processes such as “concentration,” or the ability to focus on the task at hand while ignoring distractions, are crucial for success in sport and other domains of skilled performance. To illustrate, Venus Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, proclaimed that “for the players it is complete and pure focus. You don’t see anything or hear anything except the ball and what’s going on in your head.” For psychological scientists, concentration resembles a mental spotlight (like the head-mounted torch that miners and divers wear in dark environments) that illuminates targets located either in the external world around us or in the internal world of our subjective experiences. A major advantage of this spotlight metaphor is that it shows us that concentration is never “lost”—although it can be diverted to targets (whether in the external world or inside our heads) that are irrelevant to the task at hand. Research on attentional processes in sport and performance has been conducted in cognitive psychology (the study of how the mind works), cognitive sport psychology (the study of mental processes in athletes), and cognitive neuroscience (the study of how brain systems give rise to mental processes). From this research, advances have been made both in measuring attentional processes and in understanding their significance in sport and performance settings. For example, pupillometry, or the study of changes in pupil diameter as a function of cognitive processing, has been used as an objective index of attentional effort among skilled performers such as musicians and equestrian athletes. Next, research suggests that a heightened state of concentration (i.e., total absorption in the task at hand) is crucial to the genesis of “flow” states (i.e., rare and elusive moments when everything seems to come together for the performer) and optimal performance in athletes. More recently, studies have shown that brief mindfulness intervention programs, where people are trained to attend non-judgmentally to their own thoughts, feelings, and sensations, offer promise in the quest to enhance attentional skills in elite athletes. By contrast, anxiety has been shown to divert skilled performers’ attention to task-irrelevant information—sometimes triggering “choking” behavior or the sudden and significant deterioration of skilled performance. Finally, concentration strategies such as “trigger words” (i.e., the use of short, vivid, and positively phrased verbal reminders such as “this ball now”) are known to improve athletes’ ability to focus on a specific target or to execute skilled actions successfully.
Skylar M. Brannon and Bertram Gawronski
The desire to maintain consistency between cognitions has been recognized by many psychologists as an important human motive. Research on this topic has been highly influential in a variety of areas of social cognition, including attitudes, person perception, prejudice and stereotyping, and self-evaluation. In his seminal work on cognitive dissonance, Leon Festinger noted that inconsistencies between cognitions result in negative affect. Further, he argued that the motivation to maintain consistency is a basic motive that is intrinsically important. Subsequent theorists posed revisions to Festinger’s original theory, suggesting that consistency is only important to the extent that it allows one to maintain a desired self-view or to communicate traits to others. According to these theorists, the motivation to maintain consistency serves as a means toward a superordinate motive, not as an end in itself. Building on this argument, more recent perspectives suggest that consistency is important for the execution of context-appropriate action and the acquisition and validation of knowledge.
Several important lines of research grew out of the idea that cognitive consistency plays a central role in social information processing. One dominant line of research has aimed toward understanding how people deal with inconsistencies between their attitudes and their behaviors. Other research has investigated how individuals maintain their beliefs either by (1) avoiding exposure to contradictory information or (2) engaging in cognitive processes aimed toward reconciling an inconsistency after being exposed to contradictory information. Cognitive consistency perspectives have also been leveraged to understand (1) the conditions under which explicit and implicit evaluations correlate with one another, (2) when change in one type of evaluation corresponds with change in the other, and (3) the roles of distinct types of consistency principles underlying explicit and implicit evaluations.
Expanding on these works, newer lines of research have provided important revisions and extensions to early research on cognitive consistency, focusing on (1) the identification of inconsistency, (2) the elicitation of negative affect in response to inconsistency, and (3) behavioral responses aimed to restore inconsistency or mitigate the negative feelings arising from inconsistency. For example, some research has suggested that, instead of following the rules of formal logic, perceptions of (in)consistency are driven by “psycho-logic” in that individuals may perceive inconsistency when there is logical consistency, and vice versa. Further, reconciling conflicting research on the affective responses to inconsistency, recent work suggests that all inconsistencies first elicit negative affect, but immediate affective reactions may change in line with the hedonic experience of the event when an individual has time to make sense of the inconsistency. Finally, new frameworks have been proposed to unite a broad range of phenomena under one unifying umbrella, using the concept of cognitive consistency as a common denominator.
Karen Z. H. Li, Halina Bruce, and Rachel Downey
Research on the interplay of cognition and mobility in old age is inherently multidisciplinary, informed by findings from life span developmental psychology, kinesiology, cognitive neuroscience, and rehabilitation sciences. Early observational work revealed strong connections between sensory and sensorimotor performance with measures of intellectual functioning. Subsequent work has revealed more specific links between measures of cognitive control and gait quality. Convergent evidence for the interdependence of cognition and mobility is seen in patient studies, wherein cognitive impairment is associated with increased frequency and risk of falling. Even in cross-sectional studies involving healthy young and older adults, the effects of aging on postural control and gait are commonly exacerbated when participants perform a motor task with a concurrent cognitive load. This motor-cognitive dual-task method assumes that cognitive and motor domains compete for common capacity, and that older adults recruit more cognitive capacity than young adults to support gait and posture.
Neuroimaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have revealed associations between measures of mobility (e.g., gait velocity and postural control) and measures of brain health (e.g., gray matter volumes, cortical thickness, white matter integrity, and functional connectivity). The brain regions most often associated with aging and mobility also appear to subserve high-level cognitive functions such as executive control, attention, and working memory (e.g., dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate). Portable functional neuroimaging has allowed for the examination of neural functioning during real-time walking, often in conjunction with detailed spatiotemporal measures of gait. A more recent strategy that addresses the interdependence of cognitive and motor processes in old age is cognitive remediation. Cognitive training has yielded promising improvements in balance, walking, and overall mobility status in healthy older adults, and those with age-related neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease.
Anne Josephine Dutt, Hans-Werner Wahl, and Manfred Diehl
The term Awareness of Aging (AoA) incorporates all aspects of individuals’ perceptions, behavioral experiences, and subjective interpretations related to their process of growing older. In this regard, AoA goes beyond objective descriptions of the aging process, such as calendar age or biological age. Commonly used AoA constructs referring to the ongoing experience of the aging process encompass concepts such as subjective age, attitudes toward one’s own aging, self-perceptions of aging, and awareness of age-related change. AoA also incorporates elements that are more pre-conscious in nature, such as age stereotypes and culturally held notions about the aging process. Despite their theoretically broad common foundation, AoA constructs differ according to their specific frames of reference, such as whether and how they take into account the multidimensionality and multi-directionality of development. Examining the existing body of empirical work identifies several antecedents of AoA, such as sociodemographic “background” variables, physical health and physical functioning, cognition, psychological well-being and mental health, psychological variables (e.g., personality, anxiety), and life events. In general, more positive manifestations on these variables are accompanied by a more positive perception and evaluation of the aging process. Moreover, AoA is longitudinally linked to important developmental outcomes, such as health, cognition, subjective well-being, and mortality. Overall, the study of AoA has developed as a promising area of psychological aging research that has grown in its conceptual and empirical rigor during recent years.