So says a Democratic donor pointing out these will be the ages of Trump and Biden on election day. Is he missing the point? Allegedly the “old” have senior moments and muddled decision- making. Should we be worried about both leading candidates?
Janet Yellen is the US secretary of state for the Treasury. She has more influence over the global economy than anyone else. She is 76. There is no age limited on being a US Senator. The median age is over 65. There are four senators over 80. Warren Buffett is worth $115BN and still runs Berkshire Hathaway. He is 92. His business partner Charlie Munger is 99.
The old age stereotype would suggest that above the age of 65 we are not capable of making good decisions. We make more decisions using heuristics and not “rational” decision making. We have problems with our memories. We have “senior moments". We are more susceptible to being conned and need to be protected. At the same time most older people seem to be making a good job of running their lives. They consume and make important financial decisions.
There is a disconnect. The declaration by Joe Biden of his candidacy prompted me to look again. There are three levels to look at. The first is the physical structure of the brain and how it changes with age. The second are the measures we have of intelligence. The third is how all that is put together to make decisions.
In one of the very first Newsletters I have suggested that we are not designed to retire. Uniquely, evolution has allowed us to grow old. Other primates die when they pass reproductive age. By continuing to stay active as “hunter-gathers” we supported our community. We enabled more children to be born and raised. We never stopped. In exchange our bodies and minds did not degenerate as fast as other primates. The evolution of our brain must be viewed within that context. (Newsletter #002 “The Third Age Consumer”).
The Physical Changes
Our brains do shrink. The amount of grey and white matter declines with age. Different parts of the brain decline at different rates. However recent research suggests that the number of neurons remains the same even as the brain shrinks. For some “super-agers” there is no shrinkage. For others, we use different parts of the brain compared to a younger person. In the literature this is often viewed as compensating for decline. Is this an ageist view of the world? When we are young our visual cortex is specialized. We have the capacity to instantly recognize features e.g. a face or a landscape. As we age that specialization fades. In evolutionary terms we might think that we will no longer lead the hunt (Newsletter #044 “Thimblerig”). Seldom are these changes described as decline. They are see as part of evolution. The understanding of the connection between physical and mental changes is a “work in progress”. It is still contaminated with ageism.
Most researchers of cognitive ability now accept that there is no universal decline with age. The signs of decline in early studies came from a method that is now considered inappropriate. Researchers took samples of people at different ages and compared them. This showed a simultaneous decline across many types of cognitive ability. Later studies of individuals across many years of their lives showed that most apparent declines disappeared. They found huge differences between different abilities and different individuals. We seem to maintain our cognitive abilities until our 80’s. Recently the same findings have emerged from longitudinal studies of memory. Declines in memory start much later than previously thought and are less severe. This is especially the case for “semantic” memory – the facts and figures of life.
If I describe a hamburger as “20% fat” would you prefer it to one described as” 80% lean”? To make good decisions we need to be able to realize that the two descriptions are the same. We have to resist what is called “framing”. This is one criteria for good decision making.
In a second test respondents are presented with ten choices. They are to be made based on lists of attributes describing the alternatives. Sound players are described based on its features (sound quality, ease of control etc). Respondents are told to use different rules with which to make the choices. For example: choose your most important attribute. Reject all alternatives that don’t have it. Choose the next most important attribute and repeat, until you are left with one alternative. The ability to consistently apply such rules is seen as part of good decision making.
Good decision making means ignoring “sunk costs”. The example used is the hiring of a video in a hotel bedroom (a rather dated example but a study that started a long time ago). You have paid to rent a film but discover a better one on the free TV channels. You should watch the better one and treat the rental fee you paid as a sunk cost.
Researchers used these three measures of decision making to assess decision quality. For the first time they used a longitudinal study. They tested the same older individuals 5 years apart. They want to know if their decision making ability declined. The results showed a minimal decline in ability in older adults aged 60-85. There was a very slight decline in “resistance to framing” for people over 79.
Individuals who were good at making decisions at the start of the study showed the least decline. The researchers called this a “decision making” reserve. The skills that had been learned during a lifetime of decision making that could be drawn upon.
Should we worry about the decision making ability of the current leading contenders for the US Presidency? According to the actuaries they are unlikely to die in office. The limited data on decision making ability with age suggests not. It does not decline dramatically even at their age. They have huge amounts of experience to draw on. They have deep levels of expertise. They should be able to see connections between events that younger people would not. They should have more wisdom. I will make no comment about personality!