Aging and Intelligence

  Aging and Intelligence

There are many myths regarding seniors and their intelligence. Supposedly, the old can't do their work as well as the young, and neither can they learn new things (Kart & Kinney, 2001). There are many facts that point to the idea of gerontophobia; "a fear of and negative attitude toward the aged" (Kart & Kinney, 2001). There are general disapproval of the old and job discrimination as a result ("Social", 1984). It is essential, especially at this point where the population of the elderly (65+ of age) is hitting a peak of over 35 million and growing rapidly (Kart & Kinney, 2001), to quickly debunk these myths and start facing the facts of aging and intelligence.

As more and more people became aware that the generally observed intellectual debilitation with age was not inevitable, gerontologists have been trying to designate a clear definition to the word "intelligence" so as to be able to clearly measure and study intelligence in association with aging. Spearman's G factor, Thurston's PMA, and Cattel's fluid mechanics vs. crystallized pragmatics theories are three prominent theories which have shaped the field of gerontology and aging.

Spearman's G factor
Spearman's discovery of the "g factor," now somewhat obsolete, was the basis for any study of intelligence in the early 1900's. Spearman, through numerous tests and gathering empirical data, observed a correlation between each person's various test results which seemed to be able to determine the intellectual level of the person: he dubbed the reason for the correlation, an unknown factor, the "g factor" (Jansen, 1999).

Spearman credited every human's intelligence with his/her unique g factor. However, as later experiments proved more than one factor was responsible for a person's intelligence, he proposed the idea of "groupfactors", where factors other then g were attributed to intelligence (Jansen, 1999). Spearman's theory on intelligence was based mostly on the biological and physical structure of the "human engine"; the brain. He hoped for a discovery which would link his g factor to specific physical properties of the brain (Jansen, 1999), which would then enable him to explain the apparent intellectual debilitation in the elderly with concrete factors such as "brain size, brain evoked potentials, nerve conduction velocity, and the brain's glucose metabolic rate during cognitive activity" (Jansen, 1999).

Thurston's Primary Mental AbilitiesInnumerable numbers of scientific research on intelligence was performed with Spearman's g factor as the basis. In 1938, Thurston, unwilling to attribute the entirety of human intelligence on a single factor, announced seven Primary Mental Abilities (PMA) with which to measure intelligence; verbal comprehension, verbal fluency, inductive reasoning, spatial visualization, number, memory, and perceptual speed ("Intelligence," n.d.). Through testing an individual's ability in each of these areas, Thurston stated that one could successfully contrive the level of intelligence of that person.

Much research based on Thurston's theory indicates that there is general stability in intellectual functions until the age of 60. Between the ages of 60 and 80, there is a slight decline in mental abilities, which becomes more substantial after the age of 80.

Catell's Fluid Mechanics vs. Crystallized Pragmatics
In 1936, Catell distinguished two different categories of intelligence- fluid mechanics and crystallized pragmatics. Fluid mechanics refers to "inductive and deductive reasoning" where a person is faced with novel problems to solve using creativity and inventive techniques, whereas crystallized pragmatics refers to "knowledge in all kinds of domains", intelligence already acquired through early experiences and education ("Theoretical," n.d.).

Catell found that loss in fluid mechanics was more inclined and that crystallized pragmatics was more likely to remain intact as people age ("Theoretical," n.d.). Furthermore, Catell proposed a developmental linkage between the two abilities, stating in his investment theory of intelligence that fluid mechanics later develop into crystallized pragmatics, as new skills become common knowledge with use ("Theoretical," n.d.).

Intellectual Debilitation
It is undeniable that there is apparent intellectual debilitation in the elderly. However, one cannot be quick to jump to the conclusion that inevitable decline in intelligence comes with age. There are many outside factors which can be attributed to the slowing down of the mental facilities, and just as many ways to prevent them.

Outside Factors to Mental Debilitation
One of the major factors which contribute to mental debilitation in the elderly is poor health. Physical debilitation brings along many other factors such as medication, which may impair mental functions, loss of ability to focus, and depression, which discourages elderly from being productive ("Social", 1984). As people age, positive mentality is vital as feelings of uselessness, fear of death, and lack of productivity could lead them into apathy and termination of usage of intellectual capabilities; lack of use results in mental debilitation (Kart & Kinney, 2001).

The elderly may also do poorly on tests because they take their times in answering questions to avoid risks and mistakes on standardized tests which are timed. Some questions are left unanswered because they "tend to sacrifice speed for accuracy" ("Social", 1984). But this is an indication of a longer response period; not mental debilitation (Crawford, 2004).

The senior population have also been "out of touch" with educational experiences and may lack a motivation to learn. They have lived with all the necessary knowledge required and are being tested with inappropriate material ("Social", 1984). Given hints and ideas to solve problems, the elderly have shown they were able to solve problems much more quickly and accurately ("Social", 1984).

Another popular theory attributed to mental debilitation in the later years is called the "terminal drop" (Woolf, 1998). According to this theory, a person's intelligence level drops dramatically in the last five years of his/her life. Studies have shown that elderly people who have shown significance decrease in standardized test scores died several years later (Woolf, 1998). The age for which the terminal drop is displayed is diverse in each individual as everyone's mortality rate is different.

There are many other factors which attribute to slower response and learning in the elderly. However, there needs to remain a clear distinction in mental debilitation and slowing down of response.

Prevention of Intellectual Debilitation
As previously stated, intellectual debilitation is not inevitable. Scientists have found that it is possible to prevent intellectual debilitation and keep mental functions at an optimum ("Social", 1984). In experiments, a majority of the elderly tested were able to regain their mental functioning levels of decades ago after going through training in various areas of intellectual skills ("Social", 1984).

Pfeiffer's (1977) model of successful aging suggests replacing lost items and roles, learning to do with less, and the ever-popular "use it or lose it" (Kart & Kinney, 2001). As many experiment results indicated loss of knowledge is largely due to lack of use, Pfeiffer suggested seniors to constantly be exercising their minds and keeping their brain alert.

Balte and Balte's (1990) model of successful aging suggests selective optimization, in which a person chooses one area of interest to hone his/her skill in. This keeps the person more focused and able to deal with losses that come with age.

The elderly are encouraged to keep active in their societies, volunteering and working while interacting with other members of the community. Keeping active allows the elderly to continue exercising their minds and knowledge to keep them from forgetting or getting slower in responses.

Debunking the Myth
With the new availability of senior housing, pensions, and retirements, many elderly are taking the advantage of relaxing later years and enjoying their last years. This new trend of retirement seems to be a problem to the work force, as employers are facing lack of skilled and willing workers ("Overview", 2005). Jobs in which age and experience are necessary are lacking the aged and experienced workers. The fact that employees are facing labor shortage in skilled and experienced persons successfully debunks the quite popular belief which states that the elderly are useless.

Besides the expertise which the aged worker brings to the workplace, there are other factors which make the elderly a valuable part of the work force. Older workers "bring significant benefits to the workplace, including flexibility in scheduling, low absenteeism, high motivation, and mentoring of younger workers" (Kart & Kinney, 2001). They are also more apt to work harder because of increased necessity of money ("Overview", 2005).

New and improved test results point to the fact that mental debilitation is not inevitable and can actually be improved even after taking place. Gerontophobia and ageism is popular because of lack of knowledge the general population has about the truths of aging and intelligence. As popular myths and stereotypes can be easily debunked by empirical data and research, it is important to get the facts out in the open and become aware of the true status of the elderly in the country.

Crawford, D. L., (2004). The Role of Aging in Adult Learning: Implications for Instructors in Higher Education. Retrieved March 28, 2005 from

Intelligence. (n.d.). Retrieved March 28, 2005 from

Jansen. A.R., (1999) The G Factor: the Science of Mental Abilit, Psycologuy. Retrieved March 18, 2005 from

Kart, C. S., & Kinney, J. M. (2001). Psychological Aspects of Aging. In K. Hanson (Ed.), The Realities of Aging: An Introduction to Gerontology (140-182). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
Overview of the Aging Workforce Challenges: Analysis. (2005). Retrieved March 28, 2005 from

Social Gerontology Part I: Aging and Intelligence. (1984). Current Comments, 7, pg. 97-107. Retrieved March 28, 2005 from

Theoretical Background: Psychometric Approaches. (n.d.). Retrieved March 28, 2005 from
Woolf, L. M., (1998). Theoretical Perspectives Relevant to Developmental Psychology. Retrieved March 28, 2005 from

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