According to lead researcher, Elizabeth Stine-Morrow, aging adults have choices in the way they allocate effort in everyday mental tasks like reading. They can compensate for subtle age-related changes rather than either giving in to them or giving up completely on the activity, she said. They also have choices in the way they stay mentally engaged and embrace challenges throughout their lifetimes and into older age.
"But they have more control over their "cognitive vitality" than they may realize," said Elizabeth Stine-Morrow, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, who has spent 20 years studying learning throughout the lifespan.
It's all part of what she has playfully named the "Dumbledore hypothesis of cognitive aging," based on a line from the headmaster Dumbledore in the third Harry Potter novel:
"It is our choices ... that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities," she said.
"Minor glitches in the cognitive system can loom larger than they perhaps need to because we've got these preconceived ideas about what happens with aging," she said.
She has found that older adults who remember more of what they've read tend to read differently from either younger readers or older readers who remember less. They had learned, consciously or unconsciously, that in order to maintain the same level of comprehension and memory for text as you get older, you have to do it differently'.
One thing they do is to spend more time building a "situation model" at the beginning of a story or book. They take time to get a feel for the setting, to get to know the characters, and to get grounded in important details of the story.
"By doing so, they find it easier to integrate new information later on, Stine-Morrow said.
Older readers with good comprehension also spend more time at what Stine-Morrow calls the "micro level" of their reading, pausing longer and more often to integrate new concepts or to orient themselves to a change of setting in the text.
"Younger adults who have a better memory (of what they've read) spend more time doing that conceptual integration, or what we call 'wrap-up,' at the ends of sentences, whereas older adults tend to do that more in the middle of sentences," she said.
In both cases, older readers with good comprehension have learned how to adjust their allocation of effort to compensate for losses in areas such as working memory and language-processing speed. Current research, yet to be published, is looking at how readers respond when they are coached on using these strategies.
"Effort is a good thing; effort doesn't mean you're deficient,. It's just the nature of cognition that it requires effort. Every time you allocate effort, it increases your capacity to do that thing in the future. And that becomes even more important as we get older," Stine-Morrow said
Aging adults can find themselves "embedded in cultural expectations about aging," Stine-Morrow said. "They buy into cultural stereotypes of diminished cognitive capacity."
In Stine-Morrow's analogy, the "sorting hat of cultural expectations" suggests to aging adults that their abilities are in decline. If they listen, they may shy away from intellectual challenges, and in the process possibly hasten a real decline.
"Fundamentally, it's a choice. We make the choice to listen to those murmurings of the sorting hat, or not," she said.