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Elderly make math as easy as 1-2-3.

Past research has shown that, as people age, their minds operate more slowly, typically resulting in poorer performance relative to younger adults in mental tests. However, new studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia suggest the elderly actually can outperform younger adults in solving arithmetic problems.

"The bulk of research shows that mental speed decreases as we age, but our research [indicates that] this isn't entirely so," explains David Geary, professor of psychology. "In both addition and subtraction, elderly adults were slower at reading and speaking the numbers, but were just as fast as younger adults at remembering basic facts, such as five plus six equals 11. Moreover, when executing the borrowing procedure in subtraction, in which numbers are borrowed from one column for use in another - for instance, in solving the problem 32 minus seven - adults were twice as fast as college undergraduates. We suspect these results reflect differences in the early mathematics education of these individuals."

The results prove that many healthy elderly adults actually have better developed arithmetic skills than college students in terms of using more mature problem-solving strategies and speed of procedures. "Older adults had more rigorous training in basic math, with much more practice and higher standards of performance than later generations. Apparently, this rigorous training stayed with them - even into their 70s."

Geary and Peter Frensch, assistant professor of psychology, compared the performance of college students to elderly adults in addition and subtraction using both a paper-and-pencil test, in which the subjects solved simple math equations, and a computer task that assessed problem-solving strategies such as remembering the answer and counting. The computer also recorded how much time it took to figure out each example.

The elderly outperformed the young adults on some of the paper-and-pencil tests, and the results of the computer tasks showed the older individuals had memorized almost all the basic facts. The younger ones often had to use immature strategies such as counting and decomposition to solve the same problems. Counting and decomposition take up to twice as much time as memory strategies. Decomposition involves breaking a number into more easily recognizable digits before adding or subtracting them - for instance, seven plus five equals five plus five plus two.

When analyzing the solution times, the researchers found no difference between the young and elderly groups in the speed by which facts were retrieved from memory. The only variations lay in the reading and speaking of numbers, and, in the subtraction study, the elderly were twice as fast as younger adults in the "borrowing" process.
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Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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