Modifying Primary Abilities
As you have seen, older adults do not perform as well on tests of some primary abilities as younger adults, even after taking the moderators of performance into account (Schaie, 1995). In considering these results, investigators began asking whether there was a way to slow down or even reverse the declines. As we saw earlier, there has been a surge of studies examining the effects of lifestyle, health, and personality on intelligence. Now we will pursue this issue further, asking a number of relevant questions regarding training. Are the age-related differences that remain after cohort and other effects are removed permanent? Or might these differences be reduced or even eliminated if older adults were given appropriate training? Can we modify adults’ intelligence? This again addresses the important issue of plasticity in intellectual functioning, one of the life-span tenets discussed in Chapter 1.
Attempts to answer these questions have appeared with increasing frequency since the mid – 1970s. Several types of tasks have been examined, ranging from tests of skills underlying primary mental abilities (Willis & Schaie, 1999) to the information-processing skills necessary to drive a car (Myers et al., 2000). Of these, perhaps the most interesting and important research area is the attempt to modify primary abilities that show early and substantial declines.
Primary abilities that are known to begin to decline relatively early in adulthood—such as inductive reasoning, spatial orientation, memory abilities, and figural abilities—have been examined most closely in intervention research (Willis & Schaie,
1999) . In a prototypical study, performance on a fluid ability is measured on the training task (e. g., inductive reasoning) and on a new transfer task that participants had not seen during training (e. g., a different measure of inductive reasoning). Training is given to three groups. Members of the first group are told to give themselves self-directional statements and feedback. The second group combines these with additional statements that are designed to help them cope with anxiety and to emphasize selfapproval and success. Members of the third group receive unspecific training; they simply practice
taking the test with no instructions or feedback. Typical findings demonstrate that inductive reasoning can be increased through training (Baltes et al., 2006; Willis, 1996b; Willis & Schaie, 1999). There is also evidence for transfer of the training effects, because the performance of the trained groups was also better on the new measure of fluid skill.
In addition to primary mental abilities, significant training effects have been found for other areas of cognitive functioning including memory, problem solving, and perceptual speed (Ball et al., 2002; Kliegl et al., 1990; Larsson et al., 2003).
Project ADEPT and Project ACTIVE. A much more comprehensive training study, involving a series of short longitudinal studies, was Pennsylvania State University’s Adult Development and Enrichment Project (ADEPT) (Baltes & Willis, 1982). The training studies conducted as part of ADEPT included two levels of intervention in addition to a no-training control group. All groups were equivalent at the outset.
The first level of intervention involved minimal direct training and had test familiarity as its goal. Participants were given the same tests on several occasions to familiarize them with test taking, so that the researchers could learn about the effects of repeated testing alone.
The second type of training involved interventions tailored specifically for each of the primary abilities tested. Each training package was based on a thorough task analysis of the thinking processes involved in each ability. The resulting training programs varied a little in specific details, but in general they focused on teaching the relational rules associated with each test problem, over five sessions. Training on figural relations, for instance, involved practice with paper – and-pencil tests, oral feedback by the experimenter, group discussion, and review of the kinds of problems involving figural-relations ability.
Overall, the ability-specific training resulted in improvements in primary abilities. But the ability to maintain and to transfer the training effects varied. Evidence for long-term and broad transfer effects were strongest for figural relations. Training effects were found for inductive reasoning and attention/ memory, but these effects did not transfer as well to new tasks.
These findings from the training studies are impressive when we consider their implications. The size of Baltes and Willis’s improvements in fluid abilities were equivalent to the average 21-year longitudinal decline in these abilities reported by Schaie (1983). The implication of this comparison is that the decline in primary abilities can be slowed or even reversed by proper intervention strategies. The results are even more exciting given that the training packages in ADEPT were fairly short: an average of five 1-hour sessions. Although the reversal of age-related declines in all primary abilities and the duration of the effects of training remain to be seen, clearly we need to revise our view of pervasive, universal decline in primary abilities.
Other Attempts to Train Fluid Abilities. Willis has extended the findings from Project ADEPT in studies accessing the Seattle Longitudinal Study (Willis, 1990; Willis & Schaie, 1992, 1999) and in a newer project, ACTIVE, which involves fluid ability training among the elderly. The first approach involves the participants in Schaie’s longitudinal study in Seattle. In one study (Schaie & Willis, 1986), participants were assigned to one of two groups based on their performance over a 14-year period (1970 to 1984). One group showed significant decline on either spatial ability or reasoning ability, and the other group remained stable on these measures. Schaie and Willis then provided a 5-hour training session on spatial ability and a similar session on reasoning ability for those who had declined. To examine the effects of training as a function of amount of decline, training was also provided to the individuals who had remained stable.
Schaie and Willis found that the cognitive training techniques could reverse declines that had been reliably documented over the 14-year period. However, the effects of cognitive training were largely ability specific. That is, gains were largest when the training matched the ability being tested; only modest gains were found in abilities that were not trained.
Most exciting, the improvements for both spatial and reasoning abilities essentially returned to their earlier levels of functioning in people who had
declined. In addition, the training procedures even enhanced the performance of many older people who had remained stable. This finding demonstrates that training is effective not only in raising the performance of decliners but also in improving functioning in nondecliners beyond their initial levels (Willis, 1990).
The ACTIVE project findings show that cognitive training interventions improved mental abilities and daily functioning in older independent living adults (Ball et al., 2002). Recent findings also indicate that older adults have a production deficiency in that they do not spontaneously use effective cognitive strategies. Strategy-training groups increased older adults’ cognitive skills and improved reasoning ability (Saczynski et al., 2002). In another research lab, Dunlosky and colleagues (2003) found that strategy training was not enough. When older adults learned how to regulate their studying through self-testing, this improved cognitive performance above and beyond training for strategies alone.
Considered together, the results from Projects ADEPT and ACTIVE, and the data from Schaie and Willis’s research, allow us to conclude that declines in fluid abilities may be reversible. But how long do the improvements last?
Long-Term Effects of Training. Getting older adults to do better on skills underlying fluid intelligence is impressive. Having those benefits last over time would be even better, because it would provide a powerful argument in favor of providing intervention programs to more people.
Willis and Nesselroade (1990) report results from a 7-year follow-up to the original ADEPT study. Participants were initially trained in 1979 and received booster training sessions in 1981 and 1986. Significant training effects were found at each point, indicating that people continue to benefit from cognitive intervention as they move from young-old to old-old age. Even people in their late 70s and early 80s continued to perform at levels better than they had 7 years earlier prior to training. In fact, 64% of the training group’s performance was above their pretraining baseline, compared with only 33% of the control group. As indicated earlier, the ACTIVE
project findings show that cognitive training interventions improved mental abilities in older adults. In addition, the lasting effects of this training were detected as much as 2 years later (Ball et al., 2002).
Similarly positive results were reported by Willis and colleagues (2006), who showed that the effects of training after 5 years were not only substantial, but most impressive for people who had shown declines in the skills trained over the previous 14 years. In addition, older adults who were in the training group showed milder decline in their instrumental activities of daily living. All of these training effects relate to the neurological plasticity discussed in Chapter 2. For example, evidence suggests that there is plasticity in the striatum in older adults which is proposed to be involved in updating operations (O’Reilly & Frank, 2006).
What can we conclude from these findings? First, there is strong evidence that in the normal course of development no one is too old to benefit from training and that training slows down the rates of decline for those fluid abilities examined. However, unless people are somehow reminded of the training through booster sessions, gains demonstrated during training may well be lost. Second, transfer is limited to similar tests of the same ability. Third, there are exceptions to the specificity of training. When training involves executive functioning and working memory, the effects generalize to many different tasks (Basak et al., 2008; Dahlin et al., 2008). Also, training teaches people to be aware and use strategies that apply to many learning situations (Dunlosky et al.,
2007) . Finally, training gains are durable and last up to several years (Ball et al., 2002).
Overall, these studies suggest cognitive plasticity in fluid skills persists well into old age and can be activated in intervention techniques. However, the question still remains, Do these training gains apply to related abilities in everyday functioning (Baltes et al., 1999)? In addition, what is the scope of plasticity during adulthood? Are there limits? This question is addressed in studies designed to uncover age differences in the upper limits of mental abilities (Baltes & Kliegl, 1992; Brehmer, Li et al., 2007; Lindenberger & Baltes, 1995). In these studies, training of a mental ability continues until
younger and older adults reach their maximum level of performance. Two findings are important. First, both younger and older adults improve their performance. Second, performance at maximum levels indicates that sizable age differences still remain. Younger adults outperform older adults. In other words, not a single older adult reached the performance level of younger adults. This is a good reminder that genuine age decline does occur. But it is also important to remember that relative to the older adult himself or herself, there is always room for improvement.
1. What primary mental abilities have been studied most?
2. How do the developmental trajectories of fluid and crystallized intelligence differ?
3. What are the main moderators of intellectual change, and what influences do they have?
4. How effective are programs aimed at training primary mental abilities?