Aging may affect complex decision-making

Everyone knows that aging can bring about mental decline, but how much does this decline affect older people's ability to make decisions? According to the results of a new German study, simple decision-making is not affected by aging-related cognitive decline, but as the situation becomes more complex, older adults begin to fall behind younger ones in their decision-making ability.

Psychologists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the University of Basel in Germany recruited two groups for their study, a younger group with an average age of 24 years and an older group with an average age of 71 years. They had them perform a series of tasks meant to gauge their fluid cognitive abilities, which are involved in making decisions based on previous experiences.

The first task was to choose between two lotteries, which were modeled using two items on a computer screen. Participants could see the possible outcomes of each lottery by clicking on its icon repeatedly, giving them a sense of the proportion of negative to positive outcomes. Older and younger adults performed equally well on this task. However, when they were asked to choose between four and eight lottery options, the older group began to perform worse, indicating that their fluid cognitive abilities weren't sharp enough to acquire, remember and immediately use more complex sets of new information.

"Younger as well as older adults are using relatively simple but successful learning strategies," said lead author Renato Frey in a press release. However, it seems that as decisions become more complex, these simple strategies aren't enough to make reliable decisions.

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