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Cognitive Development in Adulthood

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Cognitive Development in Adulthood

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to not be able to remember things like where you live, your name, or other basic facts about your life? What if it took you twice as long to read a book as it does right now? In late adulthood, cognitive development tends to decline, and produces changes like these.

  • What is cognitive development in adulthood?

  • What is the process of cognitive development in adulthood?

  • What are the stages of cognitive development in adulthood?

  • What are some challenges of cognitive development in adulthood?

  • What are some factors that affect cognitive development in adulthood?

Definition of Cognitive Development in Adulthood

Cognitive development in adulthood involves the ability to better integrate emotion and logic to make decisions and a decline in the ability to quickly process information. In late adulthood, cognitive development is characterized by neurocognitive disorders, intellectual changes, and memory changes. Chances are that you associate wisdom with being older. A common assumption about aging is that a person becomes wiser as they age.

Wisdom refers to a person's understanding and knowledge of human nature.

Wisdom also involves the ability to resolve conflict, make decisions, and handle uncertainty. While some studies suggest that wisdom increases steadily between the ages of 13 to 25 and remains stable until age 75, other studies suggest that adults 70 and older have more wisdom than young adults. Either way, to assume that older adults are wise simply due to their age may be an inappropriate stereotype. The reverse is also true: we shouldn't assume that an older adult doesn't know about something simply because of their age.

The Process of Cognitive Development in Adulthood

Adults go through many changes in cognitive development. The timing of those changes depends on many different factors. The two primary changes in cognitive functioning are related to information processing and intellectual abilities.

Information Processing

As we age, our ability to mentally process information tends to slow down. In addition to slower information processing, memory begins to decline in adulthood as well. Recalling information, in particular, takes a major hit in adulthood. However, recognizing information does not decline as quickly.

Information recall can depend on the type of information and its context. If the information is meaningful in some way, older adults may be able to recall that information more easily. Also, some forms of verbal memory may decline more slowly with age than other forms of memory.

In the laboratory, older adults perform slower in time-based tasks than younger adults. However, outside the lab, older adults and younger adults may perform at about the same level. Finally, older adults sometimes forget certain tasks if they are temporarily delayed or distracted from performing the task.

Intellectual Changes

Information processing is not the only decline in cognitive development in adulthood. Adults also experience intellectual changes as well. There are two types of intelligence: fluid intelligence (logical and abstract reasoning) and crystallized intelligence (factual knowledge and verbal skills). Some intellectual skills can actually improve with age, but others are more likely to decline.

Knowing the names of every American president is crystallized intelligence. Solving a riddle or puzzle uses fluid intelligence.

To test the decline of fluid and crystallized intelligence, Schaie's "Seattle Longitudinal Study" used a cross-sectional design to study participants from different age groups as they aged. Schaie (1996, 2006) found that intellectual abilities tend to remain stable throughout early and middle adulthood and begin to decline in late adulthood. Schaie also found that fluid intelligence typically declines at a faster rate than crystallized intelligence.

Stages of Cognitive Development in Adulthood

Cognitive development in adulthood peaks in the mid-20s then slowly declines throughout the rest of life. Piaget’s theory of development suggests that formal operational thinking begins during adolescence and continues throughout life.

Formal operational thinking is the last stage of Piaget's theory of cognitive development. It involves higher-order thinking skills, like abstract reasoning and hypothesizing.

Not all psychologists were satisfied with Piaget's cognitive development stages. They felt that another stage should be added after the formal operational stage. Further studies expanded Piaget's theory to include a 5th stage: post-formal operational thinking.

Post-formal operational thinking involves thinking more practically and realistically than in previous developmental stages.

Adults who have reached this stage integrate emotion and logic to make their decisions, but adolescents and young adults tend to make more emotionally-based decisions. Post-formal operational thinking is also more dialectical, meaning that the person considers several different viewpoints rather than just one. Thinking is more flexible and balanced as a result.

Psychologists typically use either a cross-sectional or longitudinal research design to study cognitive development in adulthood. Cross-sectional studies measure and compare people of different ages. Longitudinal studies measure the same people several times at different points in life. Studies using these two methods reveal that proximity to death is a stronger predictor of cognitive decline than age.

Proximity to death means how close a person is to dying, rather than how long they have been alive. Someone who is 55 with poor health may be closer to death than someone who is 65 but in better health.

A 35-year-old person with stage-four cancer and three weeks left to live has a greater proximity to death and may show more signs of cognitive decline than an 85-year-old in perfect health.

Challenges in Cognitive Development in Adulthood

Another common stereotype of later adulthood is that a person becomes senile as they age. Many people live well into their nineties with relatively clear minds. Older adults begin to notice or exhibit signs of neurocognitive disorders in later life (formally, senile dementia).

Neurocognitive disorders (dementia) are cognitive deficits common in adults aged 65 or older.

Common causes of neurocognitive disorders include Parkinson's disease, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and Huntington's disease. They can also be caused by strokes and high blood pressure. As neurocognitive disorders progress, a person experiences disorientation, issues with language, and feelings of frustration. Adults with neurocognitive disorders often feel distressed due to mental confusion, and they can develop depression, anxiety, and psychotic symptoms.

Cognitive Development in Adulthood, older woman sitting in a chair staring out the window, StudySmarterCognitive decline, freepik.com

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer's disease accounts for approximately two-thirds of all neurocognitive disorder cases. People with Alzheimer's first experience a decline in memory followed by a decline in reasoning. Other common signs include unstable walking and a reduced sense of smell. The disease can run its course in as little as five years, or as many as 20 years. In the end, the person may be emotionally flat, disoriented, and mentally vacant.

The brains of Alzheimer's patients begin to lose cells, and the neurons that produce acetylcholine (a neurotransmitter responsible for memory) begin to deteriorate. With more people living longer, finding treatments or a cure for neurocognitive disorders such as Alzheimer's is incredibly important. Some researchers are trying to develop drugs that reduce the activity of GABA, a neurotransmitter that inhibits memory, as one treatment.

Factors Affecting Cognitive Development in Adulthood

Several factors can affect cognitive development in adulthood, including genetics and lifestyle choices. Gene-environment interactions can still play a role as well.

Genetics

As with most things, genetics play a large role in cognitive development in adulthood. As mentioned earlier, people are living longer than ever and a lot of research is geared toward better understanding of neurocognitive disorders. There are specific genes that increase the risk of developing frontotemporal dementia, late-onset Alzheimer's, and early-onset Alzheimer's.

The presence of these genes does not guarantee that you will develop these disorders. How those genes interact with your environment, your life choices, and your life circumstances are also important.

Gene-environment interactions, or epigenetics, is the study of how certain genetic characteristics are triggered or induced by environmental factors.

You do not have to possess the gene or gene mutation to develop these neurocognitive disorders. For early-onset Alzheimer's, however, the presence of three gene mutations is a strong indicator that a person is at high risk of developing the disease.

Lifestyle

Several lifestyle choices can affect cognitive development in adulthood. Adults who are more mentally and physically active may be somewhat less likely to develop Alzheimer's. These activities include reading, running, attending lectures, or swimming. Brain plasticity remains throughout life, which means that our brain still holds the ability to improve and change in late adulthood.

Cognitive Development in Adulthood, an older couple running together on a beach, StudySmarterPhysical activity, freepik.com

Another lifestyle factor that can affect cognitive development is drug and alcohol use. Smoking, for example, doubles the risk of neurocognitive disorders.

Cognitive Development in Adulthood - Key takeaways

  • Cognitive development in adulthood involves the ability to better integrate emotion and logic to make decisions, and a decline in the ability to quickly process information.
  • In late adulthood, cognitive development is characterized by neurocognitive disorders, intellectual changes, and memory changes.
  • Memory begins to decline in adulthood. Recalling information, in particular, takes a major hit in adulthood. However, recognizing information does not decline as quickly.
  • Alzheimer's disease accounts for approximately two-thirds of all neurocognitive disorder cases.
  • Gene-environment interactions or epigenetics is the study of how certain genetic characteristics are triggered or induced by environmental factors.

Frequently Asked Questions about Cognitive Development in Adulthood

Cognitive development in adulthood involves integrating emotion and logic to make decisions.

An example of cognitive development in adulthood is a decline in the ability to quickly process information. 

Factors affecting cognitive development in adulthood include genetics and lifestyle choices.

The stages of cognitive development in adulthood are formal operational thinking and postformal operational thinking.

Cognitive development in adulthood is characterized by neurocognitive disorders, intellectual changes, and memory changes.

Final Cognitive Development in Adulthood Quiz

Question

True or False?  Piaget’s theory of development suggests that formal operational thinking begins during adolescence and continues throughout life.

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Answer

True

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Question

Postformal operational thinking refers to a type of thinking occurring in adulthood that is _________ and realistic than in previous developmental stages.

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Answer

more practical

Show question

Question

Adult thinking is more dialectical. What does this mean? different viewpoints.


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Answer

That rather than viewing a situation in black and white, a they are able to see several

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Question

True or False? One's proximity to death is less of a predictor of cognitive decline than age. 


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Answer

False

Show question

Question

True or False? Either way, to assume that older adults are wise simply due to their age may be an inappropriate stereotype. 

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

While ________ information takes a major hit in adulthood, _________ information does not decline as quickly.

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Answer

recalling ; recognizing

Show question

Question

What is true about older adults ability to complete time-based tasks compared to younger adults.

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Answer

Older adults are slower than younger adults

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Question

True or False? However, fluid intelligence typically declines at a faster rate than crystallized intelligence. 


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Answer

True

Show question

Question

What did Schaie's Seattle Longitudinal Study find?

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Answer

 Schaie (1996, 2006) found that most intellectual abilities remain stable throughout early and middle adulthood and do not begin to decline until late adulthood.

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Question

Which of the following is not considered a neurocognitive disorder?

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Answer

Color blindness 

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Question

Alzheimer's disease accounts for approximately __________ of all neurocognitive disorder cases


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Answer

two-thirds

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Question

In the brain of Alzheimer's patients, the neurons that produce ___________, a neurotransmitter responsible for memory, begin to deteriorate.

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Answer

acetylcholine

Show question

Question

True or False? No specific genes have been identified as risk factors for frontotemporal dementia, late-onset Alzheimer's, and early-onset Alzheimer's.

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Answer

False

Show question

Question

Which of the following does not affect cognitive development in adulthood? 

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Answer

Marital status

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Question

Perceptual speed can begin to decline during the ______ and will from there show a steady decline.

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Answer

early 20s

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Question

True or False: In late adulthood, cognitive development is characterized by neurocognitive disorders, intellectual changes, and memory changes.  

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

True or False: Cognitive development in adulthood involves the ability to better integrate emotion and logic to make decisions and a decline in the ability to quickly process information. 

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

True or False: Cognitive development in adulthood peaks in the mid-20s and then slowly declines throughout the rest of life.  

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

Question

Fill in the blank: The brains of Alzheimer's patients begin to lose cells, and the neurons that produce _________ (a neurotransmitter responsible for memory) begin to deteriorate. 

Show answer

Answer

acetylcholine

Show question

Question

True or False: Adults who are more mentally and physically active may be somewhat less likely to develop Alzheimer's. 

Show answer

Answer

True 

Show question

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