You’re in the grocery store, meandering past the bananas (too much sugar) and the asparagus (too pricey). There was a time years ago when you would have loaded up on both items. But now you’re more interested in Brussels sprouts. This is a fascinating phenomenon to Assistant Professor of Psychology Nichole Lighthall. “Everyday decision making is interesting to me because it’s so complex,” she says. Even more compelling to Lighthall? The way we make those decisions changes as we age.
To find reasons why we change our minds over time (or why our minds change us), Lighthall set up the Adult Development and Decision Lab at UCF. Here, she and her students look closely at what’s happening in that supercomputer called “the human mind.”
What sparked your personal interest in this type of research?
In college, I had my first personal experience with someone suffering from dementia. I saw how his condition affected his life and his family. It motivated me to conduct research on cognitive aging so I might help improve the lives of older adults and their loved ones.
Did you have a light-bulb moment early on?
Yes. I was working at Stanford on a study of dementia risk factors that included about 200 senior citizens. Many of these older participants were living busier and healthier lives than me, and some could easily exceed my performance on some of our cognitive tests. It was surprising to me. So I shifted my focus from dementia to research on high-level cognitive functions in healthy aging.
Why should this be important to people in their 20s or 30s?
We won’t really know how to age well if we don’t understand what optimal cognitive aging looks like. It also helps us understand our older loved ones better. I got my Ph.D. in gerontology at the University of Southern California, and our program’s motto was: “Aging is everyone’s business.” It affects all of us.
In a nutshell, what happens over time?
With age we gain life experiences and knowledge that guides our decision making. But we also face declines in working memory and some long-term memory. The combination of gains and losses can lead older people to use different strategies in decision making. It might even result in neural adaptations that help older adults compensate for declines in memory.
How are your students involved in the research?
They come from a variety of backgrounds, like cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and health-related fields. They can specialize in different topics related to their interests, like how age affects financial decisions. It’s exciting when they link up knowledge from different fields and discover something new.
What have been your most interesting findings?
One topic I’ve studied is “risky decision making.” There’s a stereotype that older people are more risk averse, but that’s not universally true. For example, we found that older adults exhibited a similar amount of risk taking on a driving task compared with younger adults. But when the older adults are exposed to a physical stressor, like holding a hand in ice water, right before the task, they became more risk averse and less decisive in their driving style.
Does the brain itself function differently?
Older adults use different regions of their brains to process decisions that involve memory retrieval. It’s interesting because their behavior looks like that of younger adults — but the brain-activity patterns show their decisions require more support from the prefrontal cortex, in a region of the brain just behind our forehead.
Which age group typically shows the most dramatic change in decision making?
Changes are gradual, and decision-making abilities typically peak around our 50s. When it comes to dramatic declines, chronological age doesn’t predict changes as well as “biological age.” Chronic health conditions and major health events, like strokes and heart attacks, are associated with the most notable declines in cognitive abilities.
What can we do to ensure that we make better decisions as we age?
I cannot overstate how important it is to maintain your physical health. You’ve heard it before — a good diet, getting rest, proper medical care, and staying physically active. It all helps with our ability to make decisions throughout life.
What excites you about this research on a daily basis?
As a scientist, I’m naturally curious. I want to know how the perfect aging brain operates — and how it came to be that way. Then there are the big payoff moments when our research sheds light on a pathway to better decision making and wellbeing. Those don’t happen every day, but they’re certainly worth waiting for.
If you or someone you know would like to be a research participant in a study (ages 55+), you can add yourself to the UCF Learning & Longevity Research Network participant database. Go to www.sciences.ucf.edu/psychology/llrn/register