Studies Show Mental Effect of Aging : Health: Two reports say the elderly do not necessarily suffer severe loss of faculties.


Aging does not have to mean severe loss of mental faculties, experts said Friday.

Many elderly men score as well as younger men on intelligence tests and some improve on the tests between ages 70 and 80, researchers from UCLA and Harvard University reported in two studies at a meeting of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science.

The retention of mental agility was most common in men who continued to work after 65. Conventional wisdom often holds that working contributes to the retention of mental skill. Neuropsychologist Sandra Weintraub of Harvard said that “the more likely interpretation, however, is that these individuals are able to continue to work because their cognitive functions are preserved.”

With the exception of disorders that involve mental deterioration, such as Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers could find no link between retention of mental abilities and general health, use of medications, hypertension, cancer, diabetes and depression.


The studies do not overthrow the idea that mental abilities decline with age. Weintraub and her colleagues found that the top-scoring men in the over-65 group were on a par with the average scoring of men under 35, and the majority of men studied showed significant declines.

Even the higher-scoring elderly men took longer to complete tests than their younger counterparts, although Weintraub could not determine whether that reflected a slowing of their motor or mental skills.

The results do show that many men are able to escape the severe mental deterioration that often accompanies aging. Further studies of these men, Weintraub said, may lead to clues about how to slow the mental aging process in the general population.

In a separate study, UCLA researchers Edwin S. Shneidman, a specialist in the study of death, and psychiatrist Gordon D. Strauss tested 35 intellectually gifted men at intervals between 70 and 80. They found that 77% increased the size of their working vocabularies during their 70s.


The new studies are particularly important, according to psychologist Douglas H. Powell of Harvard, because of the so-called “graying of America.” In the United States, he said, the over-85 group is the fastest growing segment of the population. By the turn of the century, 13% of all U.S. citizens will be at least 65.

Furthermore, mandatory retirement for most workers is prohibited by federal law. Finally, Powell said, more people are forced to work to older ages because of the declining number of young people entering the job market.

The Harvard results are the first to come from an ongoing study, called the Assessment of Cognitive Skills, of 1,003 physicians between 28 and 92. The study is designed to develop a computerized test of mental skills that could be used to identify “age-inappropriate” mental decline in physicians.

Although the majority of elderly physicians restrict their work in recognition of their lessened mental skills, “it appears that some continue to work while intellectually impaired, perhaps because dementia often renders its victims devoid of self-analysis and judgment,” Powell said. The skills test is being developed to identify such individuals.


The test measures memory, attention, visual perception, calculation and reasoning, Powell said.

Shneidman and Strauss’ study was a follow-up to the so-called Terman Study of gifted men, begun in 1921 by Lewis Terman, a psychologist at Stanford University.