Adulthood Cognitive Development


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A picture shows three people at a table leaning over a board game.
Figure 1. Cognitive activities such as playing mahjong, chess, or other games, can keep you mentally fit. The same is true for solo pastimes like reading and completing crossword puzzles. (credit: Philippe Put)

Adulthood Cognitive Development (OpenStax Psychology 2e)

Because we spend so many years in adulthood (more than any other stage), cognitive changes are numerous. In fact, research suggests that adult cognitive development is a complex, ever-changing process that may be even more active than cognitive development in infancy and early childhood (Fischer, Yan, & Stewart, 2003).

Unlike our physical abilities, which peak in our mid-20s and then begin a slow decline, our cognitive abilities remain steady throughout early and middle adulthood. Our crystallized intelligence (information, skills, and strategies we have gathered through a lifetime of experience) tends to hold steady as we age—it may even improve. For example, adults show relatively stable to increasing scores on intelligence tests until their mid-30s to mid-50s (Bayley & Oden, 1955). However, in late adulthood, we begin to experience a decline in another area of our cognitive abilities—fluid intelligence (information processing abilities, reasoning, and memory). These processes become slower. How can we delay the onset of cognitive decline? Mental and physical activity seems to play a part (Figure 1). Research has found adults who engage in mentally and physically stimulating activities experience less cognitive decline and have a reduced incidence of mild cognitive impairment and dementia (Hertzog, Kramer, Wilson, & Lindenberger, 2009; Larson et al., 2006; Podewils et al., 2005).

Researchers have examined the aging brain by comparing it to brain functioning in younger people. Forstmann and colleagues (2011) compared elderly participants to younger participants, who in the study were asked to report the direction of movement of a set of dots. They were given feedback regarding speed and accuracy. The researchers found that older participants made more errors and were slower due to degeneration of corticostriatal connections. In other words, the decreased ability typically assigned to elderly people may be due to circumstances in the brain beyond their control. Interestingly, other researchers have found similarities in spatial representations when comparing children aged 6–7 to those over the age of 80. Ruggiero, D’Errico, and Iachini (2016) reported that this is due to neurodegeneration in older adults and immature neurology in young children.

Many elderly people experience dementia, changes in the brain that negatively affect cognition. Alzheimer’s disease is one type of dementia, initially studied by medical researcher Solomon Carter Fuller. Alzheimer’s disease has a genetic basis. Plaques in the brain are due to cell death, which then causes those affected with the disease severe forgetfulness. A person can forget how to walk, talk, and eventually eat. The disease can be mitigated by assessing environmental factors (exposure to lead, iron, and zinc increase risk) and nutritional factors (the Mediterranean diet lowers risk) (Arora, Mittal, & Kakkar, 2015). Although there is no cure, there is hope. Cognitive rehabilitation can offset mild cognitive impairment, as it can evolve into dementia. Garcia-Betances, Jimenez-Mixco, Arredondo, and Cabrera-Umpierrez (2015) examined the use of virtual reality as a possible cognitive rehabilitative method. They suggested that virtual reality technology should involve daily living activities, memory, and language, among other considerations.


Spielman, R. M., Jenkins, W. J., & Lovett, M. D. (2020). Psychology 2e. OpenStax. Houston, Texas. Accessed for free at


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