Thursday, July 12, 2007

Aging & Decision-Making: Mapping Uncharted Territory

A few weeks ago, I listened to an interview on the Jefferson Exchange which focused on decision-making as we age. The discussion got me wondering about how my ability to make decisions may change as I get older -- a subject I had never considered before.

Jeff Golden, the host of the radio show interviewed Ellen Peters, a senior research scientist with Decision Research, who had recently co-authored a journal article about the aging brain and decision-making.

Peters noted that how we think our way through information and how we feel our way through it effect our decision-making. And it depends on the situation which way of processing information works better.

Often, elders feel their way through decisions rather than think harder about them. Peters says "Thinking capacity declines with time. We learn less easily. We process information more slowly." But our emotional way of processing "may show improvements over time. We may tend to feel our way through decisions more when we are older."

Elders can be very intuitively intelligent, using what they have learned experientially throughout their lives to their advantage in making decisions. However, in unfamiliar situations and those dealing with numbers, older people tend to have more difficulty processing information and remembering it.

According to Peters, our memory and speed of processing generally decline with age but intuition remains stable throughout life. So elders rely more on their intuition in decision-making than younger people.

In response to a woman who called-in to the radio interview, Peters noted that "pattern recognition" plays a part in decision-making. She said that "as we get older, we see the forest, not just the trees" -- responding to the overall situation we face, not just the details -- when we need to make a decision.

Commenting about her research in a media story, Peters said "older people who make mistakes have less time and less physical resiliency to compensate for bad decisions than do younger people. Older people are more vulnerable."

"We may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but the old dog may have lots and lots of old tricks that help quite a bit. In some situations, the old dogs may be making better decisions than the pups."

Peters concluded the interview by saying that "deliberate decline is too simple a way to explain decision-making and aging." Our knowledge about the world through life experiences tends to rise over time even as the human brain's ability to process information declines with age.

So there is hope for this "old dog" as I age and make decisions in my life. Depending on the situation, I may even make better choices when I rely on my emotions and past experiences! Now, all I have to do is learn to be more patient with myself in situations where thinking harder about unfamiliar information will produce the best decision.
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