Old workers mentally outclass aged dons

August 22, 1997

Despite a lifetime of stimulation, top dons' brains deteriorate with age just as quickly as those of anyone else, according to new research.

Research by psychologists from the Australian National University in Canberra fails to find evidence to support claims that academics hold on to their faculties longer than blue-collar workers. In fact, their research suggests that in some areas of cognitive ability, academics' performance may decline more with age than that of their less academically qualified contemporaries.

Researchers compared the performance of elderly, eminent academics with elderly blue-collar workers over a five-year period to see how they performed on tests of intelligence and memory.

They were interested to see whether superior levels of education and exposure over a lifetime to complex stimulating environments were sufficient to arrest the decline in cognitive ability associated with age.

The academics, many of whom were still publishing and editing at 70, were tested on verbal ability, non-verbal ability, memory and general cognitive ability.

The researchers found that both the elderly academics and blue collar workers' performance declined at a similar rate in the non-verbal tasks. But on tests of verbal reasoning, whereas the blue-collar workers improved, the dons' performance deteriorated.

Moreover, a greater proportion of the academics than the blue-collar workers, who were recruited from senior citizens' and bowling clubs, showed deterioration in the National Adult Reading Test.

Neil Martin, of the British Psychological Society, said:"The greater decline in intelligence in the academics is interesting if - for academics - depressing. However, factors such as the short length of the study and the loss of subjects due to dying suggest caution in interpreting these results too depressingly."

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