Why Older People Tend to Be Poor Decisionmakers

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It’s not just dementia and cognitive decline that makes people more uncertain with age; changes in rationality and the way the elderly evaluate risk could explain why they are more likely to make the wrong decisions affecting everything from their health to their finances.

While numerous studies have documented a drop in cognitive function with age, there isn’t solid data to explain what drives this decline in decisionmaking, particularly in the face of uncertainty. But according to the latest research, poor choices made by the elderly can’t be attributed to their lack of math skills or a fear of financial losses. In the study, people over the age of 65 tended to be inconsistent when making decisions in which there was one obviously correct answer, like choosing between a definite win of $5 and a lottery with indefinite odds of winning the same amount.

The research, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, included 135 people, ranging in ages from 12 to 90, who made 320 decisions under different scenarios involving varying monetary gains or losses and differing levels of risk.

“We found it surprising and stunning,” says study co-author Ifat Levy, assistant professor of comparative medicine and neurobiology at Yale University. “These are highly functional older people, and they still got it wrong more often than younger people did.” She and her colleagues found that nearly half of the losses in possible income among the oldest people in the study resulted from this kind of error.

The results didn’t change if the oldest old were excluded — and the scientists tested for whether the effect was due to dementia. But all of the older participants performed well on multiple cognitive tests. Time pressure wasn’t a factor either.

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Prior research showed that most people are willing to take bigger risks when there’s a possibility of gaining money than if there’s a risk of losing what they already have.

But the elderly in the study revealed nearly the opposite behavior, exposing a seemingly irrational and inconsistent thought process. While they were far less adventurous than younger adults when making choices about possible gains, they seemed to throw caution to the wind when it came to making decisions about potential loss.

Levy isn’t sure why this occurs, but speculates that it may have something to do with the older participants’ life experience. “I think maybe they think that they have less to lose as they are approaching an old age or the end of life,” she says. That could have less to do with cognitive changes and more to do with the shifting value they place on risk and benefit as they age.

That understanding could have implications not only for family members caring for elderly relatives, but also for policymakers as the proportion of older people in our society increases. The findings may help explain why the elderly are much more vulnerable than the young, for example, to financial losses and to making poor health decisions. “It’s definitely a big part of why they may get taken advantage of,” says Levy. “At the policy level, this is [maybe] something that should be taken into account in planning retirement and health options that are offered.”

In fact, other research suggests that the impairments in decisionmaking may extend beyond financial situations to situations like driving. And that’s why the researchers urge additional studies to uncover more about how the older life stage, independent of cognitive decline, changes the way the elderly make decisions.

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Recognizing this, the authors conclude, “Although this may be a unique study of age and preference on this scale, it is important to recognize that it is in fact a very small study, conducted in two cities in the northeastern United States. This study should not be taken as offering any final characterization of decision making across the lifespan in the human population.” It does, however, suggest that we need to learn a lot more about the different ways that age affects decisions — and what can be done about it.