A new study from University of Illinois at Urbana says that older air traffic controllers perform as well as their young counterparts on complex, job-related tasks.
The research, led by psychology professor Art Kramer, has shown that despite certain deficits older people's expertise on the job enables them to function on a par with their younger peers.
"The question we were interested in was whether older controllers could continue to do the job," said Kramer, who conducted the study with graduate student Ashley Nunes.
"If so, perhaps we could keep these people on the job for a little longer and this way provide more time for the transition and appropriate training of new controllers," he added.
During the study, the researchers compared older and younger controllers with one another and with their age-matched peers who were not air traffic controllers.
All of the study subjects performed a battery of cognitive tasks and simulated air traffic control tasks, which varied in difficulty.
On simple cognitive tasks, the older controllers were similar to the older non-controllers.
The research team showed, compared with their younger peers aged 20 to 27, the older subjects were slower on simple memory or decision-making tasks that were not directly related to air traffic control.
But on the tests that simulated the tasks of an air traffic controller, the older and younger controllers were equally capable.
"Despite the fact that these old controllers are not superpeople in a cognitive sense, they still do really well on complex simulated air traffic control tasks that are representative of what they do every day," Kramer said.
"They do well, one would surmise, because they've gained decades of knowledge in their profession that's allowed them to offset the costs of not having quite the memory they used to have, and certainly not being able to respond as quickly as they once could," he added.
Kramer said that the study highlights the distinction between "fluid intelligence" and "crystallized intelligence".
Fluid intelligence includes memory capacity and speed of recall; crystallized intelligence is the expertise that comes from years of attention and practice.
"Fluid intelligence declines with age, as it did in our controllers. But despite that, the many years of experience, the many years of building domain-relevant knowledge in their area of expertise allows them to offset or compensate for these losses in fluid intelligence and do the job really well, just as well as the younger ones," he said.
The study appears in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.