04/18/2013 05:35 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2013

Age and Cognitive Ability: Good News for Healthy Boomers and Older Adults

Those over 50 will be happy to know that we've dispelled some myths recently about how people's brains perform as they age.

It's long been held that we lose decision-making capacity with age. The Journal of Gerontology reported in 2007 that "the convergence of increased longevity, cognitive aging and dementia... are making and will continue to make issues of capacity loss in older adults a prominent public policy concern."

The 2009 Brookings Institution paper, "The Age of Reason: Financial Decisions over the Life-Cycle with Implications for Regulation," stated, "Middle-age adults make fewer mistakes than younger and older adults. We conclude that financial mistakes follow a U-shaped pattern, with cost-minimizing performance occurring around age 53."

The idea that older people lose the capacity to learn is pervasive in our society. We hear it all the time, even from our own children: "Dad's a little slower; we need to help him make decisions." "It's kind of complicated; why don't I handle that for you?"

Of course, if people have dementia, they do need help. But those who don't likely have the ability to make decisions on their own.

Finally, there's good news that may put some of those disturbing assertions to rest. A recent study from the MetLife Mature Market Institute and the Center for Brain Health at the University of Texas at Dallas, called "Healthy Brain, Healthy Decisions: The MetLife Study of Decision-Making Potential," reports it's not age alone that leads to a deteriorating ability to make decisions. The culprits are other factors related to medical conditions.

The data suggests that previous studies documenting declining ability to think logically and solve problems, starting as early as age 40, fail to identify individual factors such as early dementia or other medical causes.

Even more encouraging, the study says prior research may have ignored positive age-related attributes that preserve or even enhance decision-making, like life experience, reasoning ability and accumulated knowledge.

In other words, if a person is free of disease that impairs thinking, he may be a just as good or even better at decision-making than someone younger.

The new research looked at the connection between cognitive health and the ability to make logically consistent decisions. It identified issues that may inhibit decision-making among those 50 to 79.

The Center for BrainHealth recruited adults in their 50s, 60s and 70s, assessing them to rule out decline in cognitive function. All were at or above the normal cognitive range; they were average, high-average or superior.

These individuals showed comparable capacity to be logically consistent in decision-making. That is, when presented with the same choice described in two different ways, their selections were consistent.

All three age groups were on par with each other on strategic learning (the ability to sift and learn important information while ignoring the less relevant).

On their level of financial conscientiousness -- sticking to a budget and having a clear retirement plan -- older participants were more conscientious about personal finance matters than younger, Boomer-age subjects.

Older participants (in their 70s) were more conscientious, remained vigilant (i.e., considered their options before making a decision) and avoided being hyper-vigilant (focused on immediate solutions without considering other outcomes) compared to the younger group (in their 50s).

"Rather than attributing impaired decision-making to age alone, approaches that assess an individual's strategic learning ability and cognitive function can improve our understanding of decision-making capacity at all ages and between genders," said Sandra Chapman, Ph.D., founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth.

"We need to move beyond age. Policies and practices that focus exclusively on age-related declines in decision-making unnecessarily inhibit the autonomy of older adults with preserved cognitive function," she said.

Specifically, the researchers found the following:

• Healthy older adults show no decline in decision-making.
• Strategic learning capacity may actually increase with age.
• Conscientious decision-making intensifies with age.
• Risk tolerance can be linked to cognitive ability, with similar outcomes for men and women.

There were some differences between men and women. Men with average cognitive function demonstrated the highest risk-seeking (lowest logical consistency) in decision-making of any group. Men in the superior range were the most conservative, followed by women in the average cognitive range. (Decision-making and what impacts risk-aversion and risk-seeking are of particular interest, since women become the lead decision-makers since they live longer and typically outlive their spouses.)

Of course, this data shouldn't lead to complacency as there are many ways that healthy adults can improve the ability to make decisions.

Experts recommend being a "vigilant decision maker," to consider as many options as possible, weigh outcomes and take time to make sound decisions with long-term outcomes in mind. It is not, however, optimal to be hyper-vigilant, impulsive, a "buck-passer" (one who relies on others) or a procrastinator.

With important decisions, financial or not, focus on your most important needs. List and prioritize them, giving each a rank. If you're taking a vacation, for instance, is it more important that you get some rest or see the sights? Are you looking for fine dining or basic fare? Once the list is made and you've determined which destinations have the most options among your priorities, you'll find it easier to determine where you're headed.

Additional advice:

• Avoid making important decisions when stressed or under pressure.
• Take the time to identify options and concerns. Sleep on it.
• Avoid making impulsive decisions on major issues.
• Allow yourself to get excited about decisions only after you've really analyzed what you intended to accomplish.

Some types of learning do decline with age -- rote memorization, recalling figures, absorbing lots of data in a short period of time or remembering names. But these are not critical to healthy decision-making capacity and the majority of those over age 55 are cognitively healthy; they can remain so well into old age.

Tell that to your kids the next time they imply you're not as capable of making decisions as they are!

The opinions expressed are those of the authors and may not necessarily be those of MetLife. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, New York, NY 10166. DJC Communications is not affiliated with MetLife.