Most people think of old age as a stage characterized by decline in all body functions, including cognitive ones. However, research reveals that the psychological changes in memory, intelligence, attention or creativity characteristic of non-pathological ageing are less than we think.

Psychological changes that occur in old age

During old age changes take place in most psychological functions and processes. However, in general we can say that these changes do not occur equally in all people, but that are influenced in a key way by factors such as physical health, genetics or the level of intellectual and social activity.

We will focus on the analysis of the development during the third age of four of the most studied psychological aspects in this field: the attentional capacities, the different components of the memory, the intelligence (both the fluid and the crystallized) and the creativity.

1. Attention

Although a decline in the functioning of care processes in old age has been clearly identified , these changes do not occur equally in all types of care. In order to understand the deterioration of this stage of life, it is necessary to describe what sustained, divided and selective attention consists of.

We speak of sustained attention when a task requires us to keep our attention focused on the same stimulus for a relatively long period of time. Older people are less precise when they start tasks, but their level of success does not diminish any more than that of younger people as time goes by.

On the other hand, the deterioration of divided attention, consisting of alternating the focus of attention between different sources of stimuli or tasks, is much more marked. The degree of effectiveness is lower the greater the difficulty and the number of tasks through which this type of attention is evaluated.

Selective attention allows us to give priority to certain stimulating components, over other less relevant perceptive experiences. Differences between young and old people only appear when tasks are difficult and when it is necessary to ignore a significant amount of irrelevant information.

2. Memory

The sensory memory, the most immediate of the memory stores, generally shows a slight decline as a result of aging. Short-term passive memory does not seem to be affected by age except for a small decline in the speed of information retrieval .

In contrast, several longitudinal studies show that working memory does worsen in old age, especially after 70 years of age. This is associated with the difficulties in managing the attention processes described in the previous section.

As regards long-term memory, when the material is of a procedural or declarative type there are no deficits associated with old age. On the other hand, episodic or autobiographical memories clearly deteriorate as age advances, although those of the second decade of life are maintained more than those of the rest.

In summary, we can state that memory impairment is not directly associated with old age but through the appearance of pathologically intense cognitive deficits, which does not happen in all people. On the other hand, when memory problems are slight, it is relatively easy to compensate for them with behavioural strategies.

3. Intelligence

Although differences in intelligence according to age have been found, these are different depending on whether they are investigated transversally (comparing two different age groups at the same time) or longitudinally (over time in the same individuals). Another key aspect is the distinction between fluid and crystallised intelligence.

Crystallized intelligence, which refers to accumulated knowledge and its handling, does not cease to increase throughout life, except if one suffers from a mental disorder. On the other hand, fluid intelligence, associated with the efficiency of neuronal transmission and other biological factors, shows intense deterioration from at least 70 years of age .

In this regard, special mention should be made of the phenomenon of terminal loss, which consists of a very intense deterioration in IQ scores in the last 5-10 months of life due to physical decline. Like the other intellectual deficits derived from old age, terminal loss is associated to a greater extent with fluid intelligence than with crystallised intelligence.

4. Creativity

Creativity is defined as the human capacity to generate new ideas and original solutions through the association of existing mental content. In psychology, the concept of “divergent thinking” or “lateral” is often used to refer to this capacity, as opposed to convergent or vertical thinking, based on logic.

Although research on the evolution of creativity as a function of age is scarce, its results suggest that is maintained and even improved over time in people who exercise it . However, among those who are not particularly creative, this capacity is lower in old age than at younger ages.