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7 Changes In Decision-Making As We Get Older

Patricia Faust April 2023

Brain Health Expert: Patricia Faust

We make decisions everyday. It is what we do to remain highly functional and independent.

We don’t question those decisions. And that could be a problem as we get older. Our aging brains change the way we process information and make decisions.

“Normal aging can have a direct impact on how our brain functions.”

The Aging Brain:

Everyone’s brain ages but our brain doesn’t know how old we are. Our brain ages by the way we treat it – good or bad. Normal aging can have a direct impact on how our brain functions. Here are some basic brain aging functions that we all experience:

1. Cognitive Decline:

Cognition is the umbrella term for planning, thinking, memory, executive function. Cognitive decline starts around age 25 with an acceleration point at age 50 and again at age 70. 

2. Speed of Processing:

This is one of the key indicators of cognitive decline. Speed of processing is the amount of time it takes to bring information into the brain, consider it, and give a response. When we are at our cognitive peak – those responses are very fast. We have lots of neurons and connections participating in the communication process. As we get older, the loss of neurons and connections slows communication down. Our brain functions slower. A 60-year old brain is 2-3x slower than a 20-year old brain. An 80-year old brain is 5-6x slower than a 20-year old brain. That slow down impacts the functions of our brain.

3. Cognitive Flexibility:

Commonly known as mental multitasking. When multiple streams of information are coming into your brain at the same time – we used to be able to compare and contrast that information to make the best choices. An aging brain doesn’t have that flexibility anymore and all of this information becomes information overload.

4. Memory Lapses:

We probably identify with this loss more than any of the other aging losses. There is a phenomenon called Tip-of-the-Tongue that we all have experienced as we get older. This occurs when you are trying to remember a name, an event, a location, an item. You know what it is; you can see it; you know the first letter but you cannot remember the name or the item – or whatever it is you forgot.

The memory isn’t gone – it just takes awhile to recover it. Our memory is affected by aging. It takes a lot of effort to actually form a memory. The incoming signal comes in through working memory. The problem with working memory is that it is very vulnerable to distraction and it only holds a small amount of information for a very short period of time. Because of all of this, we might not even be making the memories that we think we are forgetting.

5. Decline in Financial Skills:

Money and finances are tough to handle with an aging brain. Finances are higher-order thinking and some of us might have losses in the prefrontal cortex and just struggle to work with our finances. Financial literacy declines as we get older. Studies have indicated that adults in the 60 – 80-year-old range typically have a low understanding of financial literacy in the first place. As we get older the decline starts at a low bar of functionality.

Our analytical reasoning peaks at age 53. This is pretty disturbing when you first see this. We see aging as advanced aging and when we see an age of 53 as a peak with decline to follow – it can be disturbing. Investment skills decline around age 70. This might not be necessarily true for those adults who were financial professionals but if you made your own investment decisions over your life you might not find as much success in your investment efforts after you are 70.

The age parameters are just that – generalizations as to when cognitive declines might occur. Researchers from New York University discovered that inconsistent decisions are related to decreased gray matter density in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex – an area involved with executive function and highly correlated with inconsistent choices. It is anatomy not chronological age that accounts for more irrational decisions.

“Many older adults depend on crystallized intelligence to make decisions.”

6. Fluid Intelligence:

This type of intelligence is the ability to make decisions based on the information presented to you – not on past experience and education.  Fluid intelligence decreases with aging.

7. Crystalized Intelligence:

On a bright note – crystallized intelligence is based on your life experience, your education, you career and environment. This type of intelligence increases as we get older. Many older adults depend on crystallized intelligence to make decisions.

Longevity and Decision-Making:

Now that you have the inside track on how aging brains affect brain function, let’s get more specific about how these factors affect decision-making. 

Longevity requires older adults to maintain strong decision-making capabilities for a greater number of years. High powered careers continue late in life. The average age for a CEO was shown to be 57-years old, with some of the oldest CEOs in their 70s and 80s.

The minimum age to be president of the US is 35. But the ages of our politicians skew much older. Ronald Reagan was 69 when he was elected, Donald Trump was 70, and Joseph Biden was 78. You cannot make a leap to conclusions about aging older adults in high powered positions because, even though everyone’s brain ages, how we take care of our brain will determine what kind of functioning brain we will have when we are older. Several studies have indicated that cardio-vascular exercise may improve blood flow in the brain rescuing executive function. (The Healthy Brain for Life – Physical Exercise).

Good Decision-Making As We Age:

Good decision-making is a conscious and deliberate choice. It typically involves selecting an option that is most likely to meet our goals. Thinking through options and comparing all of the pros and cons require some level of cognitive effort. Remember that our speed of processing slows down as we age. This is likely due to the wear and tear of the white matter in the brain – the nerve cells that transmit information to the rest of our brain.

“Many older adults can process information by capitalizing on the brain processes that improve with age.”

This can mean that we, as older people, may struggle to make cognitively demanding decisions. Older adults have limited resources to deal with complex decisions and the greater quantity of information with which we are faced. What we do have and capitalize on is crystallized intelligence – our wisdom. We can determine if we have made a similar decision in the past and base a new decision on our previous experience.

Other aspects of cognition that also get better with age: emotional processes, problem-solving, expertise and social context. Many older adults can process information by capitalizing on the brain processes that improve with age.

Emotions and Decision-Making:

Emotions play a role in decision-making. Our subconscious brain dictates 94-96 percent of our decisions – all below our level of awareness. This is the area of the brain that determines what we really want. We discover what our subconscious brain is communicating to us by what we feel. It is our gut-feeling, our intuition and our emotions. The subconscious brain rules our ultimate thinking process – it is not what we think and say but rather what we feel and want.

An understanding of how older adults make decisions is important for everything from healthcare choices to housing choices. We need to think differently about how we release information and gain a better understanding on how that information is received. Processing new information through social context can result in different effects. These outcomes are not wrong – just different. Our society requires that careful thought be given to information dissemination to older adults because they must continue to make decisions even in the face of cognitive decline. 

References:

Scutti, S. (September 30, 2013). Retrieved from http://www.medicaidaily.com/decision-making-ability-may-decline-age-are-older-adults-less-rational-258504

Sukel, K. (January 9, 2018). Aging and decision-making: a neuroanatomical approach.  The Dana Foundation. Retrieved from http://www.dana.org/Aging_and_Decision-Making_A_Neuroanatomical_Approach.

Wandi Bruine De Bruin. (June 19, 2016). How aging affects the way we make decisions.  Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/how-ageing-affects-the-way-we-make-decisions-a7089906.html

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About the Author:

Patricia Faust is a gerontologist specializing in the issues of brain aging, brain health, brain function and dementia. She has a Masters in Gerontological Studies degree from Miami University in Oxford Ohio. Patricia is certified as a brain health coach and received a certification in Neuroscience and Wellness through Dr. Sarah McKay and the Neuroscience Academy. My Boomer Brain, founded in 2015, is the vehicle that Patricia utilizes to teach, coach and consult about brain aging, brain health and brain function. Her newsletter, My Boomer Brain, has international readers from South Africa, Australia, throughout Europe and Canada. She has also been a frequent guest on Medicare Moment on WMKV and Cincy Lifestyles on WCPO.