People often fear that aging will cause their intellect to disappear, giving way to cognitive impairment and irrationality. However, intellectual decline is not an inevitable consequence of aging. Research does not support the stereotypic notion of the elderly losing general cognitive functioning or that such loss, when it does occur, is necessarily disruptive. Older adults tend to learn more slowly and perform less well on tasks involving imagination and memorization than do younger adults, but what older adults may be lacking in terms of specific mental tasks, they make up for in wisdom,
or expert and practical knowledge based on life experience.
Many older adults complain about not being able to remember things as well as they once could. Memory problems seem to be due to sensory storage problems in the short‐term rather than long‐term memory processes. That is, older adults tend to have much less difficulty recalling names and places from long ago than they do acquiring and recalling new information.
Practice and repetition may help minimize the decline of memory and other cognitive functions. Researchers have found that older adults can improve their scores on assorted tests of mental abilities with only a few hours of training. Working puzzles, having hobbies, learning to use a computer, and reading are a few examples of activities or approaches to learning that can make a difference in older adults' memory and cognitive functions.
Recent decades have witnessed older adults' growing interest in continuing their education. In fact, many colleges and community centers offer classes for free or at a significant discount for senior citizens. Although keeping up with a class of 20 year olds may be a challenge, older adults can learn new information if it is presented clearly, slowly, and over a period of time. Older adults also can enrich the learning process for others through the insight and wisdom they've gained from life experience. Younger students often remark that they appreciate the practical perspective that their older colleagues offer.
Older adults who have kept their minds active and fit continue to learn and grow, but perhaps more gradually than their younger colleagues. Patience and understanding (on the part of both the elderly and their significant others), memory training, and continued education are important for maintaining mental abilities and the quality of life in the later years.