shutterstock_15174088_-_webSometimes it’s just not your day: first you can’t remember where you put your car keys, then you forget about an important meeting at work. We’ve all experienced cognitive lapses at one time or another. But a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, shows that older workers may actually have fewer “senior moments” than their younger counterparts.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin found that:

  • There aren’t really “good and bad days” for cognitive performance. Rather, fluctuations in cognitive performance happen in shorter amounts of time, i.e. there are good and bad “moments”.
  • Older workers (ages 65-80) had more consistent cognitive performance than their younger counterparts (ages 20-31).


One-hundred-and-one younger (ages 20-31) and 103 older (ages 65-80) adults were tested for perceptual speed, episodic memory, and working memory across 100 days, enabling researchers to assess the participants’ learning improvements as well as their day-to-day performance fluctuations.


The results revealed significant age differences. In all nine cognitive tasks assessed, the older group actually showed less performance variability from day to day than the younger group. The older adults’ cognitive performance was thus more consistent across days, and this picture remained unaltered when differences in average performance favoring the young were taken into account.

“Further analyses indicate that the older adults’ higher consistency is due to learned strategies to solve the task, a constantly high motivation level, as well as a balanced daily routine and stable mood,” explained lead researcher, Florian Schmiedek.

The findings are of importance for the debate about older people’s potential in the workplace.

“One of our studies in the car production industry has shown that serious errors that are expensive to resolve are much less likely to be committed by older staff members than by their younger colleagues,” says Axel Börsch-Supan, another researcher studying productivity of the labor force in aging societies at the Max Planck Institute. “Likewise, in other branches of industry that we have studied, one does not observe higher productivity among the younger relative to the older workers.”

“On balance, older employees’ productivity and reliability is higher than that of their younger colleagues,” concludes Börsch-Supan.

This research was supported by the Max Planck Society and an award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation donated by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.


Source: Schmiedek F, Lövdén M, Lindenberger U. “Keeping it steady: older adults perform more consistently on cognitive tasks than younger adults.” Psychol Sci. 2013 Jul 10 [epub ahead of print].