How Do Reasoning and Judgment Change During Aging?
People later in life may experience difficulties with reasoning and judgment. Much like an older loved one may forget names or important events, they may too struggle with decision-making. Or perhaps you’ve noticed your own sharp judgment has waned in recent years.
Don’t worry. That’s natural. Even without dementia, our interwoven cognitive abilities affecting reasoning, judgment and memory in some people may regress with time.
What might that look like? You may have difficulty making important financial decisions. A loved one may make dangerous mistakes more frequently like running a red light.
Care partners and people getting older should monitor these developments closely. With safety, finances and other well-being matters dictated largely by sound judgment, it’s important to understand how cognitive changes over time may shape decision-making now and in the future.
But What Exactly are Reasoning and Judgment?
People from a young age develop the capacity to reason through scenarios and judge the consequences of actions. A toddler won’t touch the stove again because the heat was painful. A fourth-grader learns to finish her dinner because she didn’t get dessert the night before. A college freshman learns to budget money after overdrafting his account.
A lifelong series of mental transactions leading from action to consequence or reward help us to avoid repeating mistakes and seek continual gratification. Second-hand experiences also drive decision-making. If you’ve never been in a car accident, you’ve likely seen the aftermath of one. You know it’s dangerous to lose focus at an intersection or change lanes on the highway without checking your blind spot.
And Then We Get a Bit Older
We avoid calling them senior moments. It pigeon-holes our elders and ourselves into a state of victimhood against age. Some people simply live with cognitive decline with age, a natural biological process. It just happens.
And here’s a little glimpse of what’s going on in that beautiful, little tool we call a brain.
You or your elder may notice that attention span or attention to detail isn’t what it once was. Where your mother could once read half a chapter book before bed, she now finishes only a chapter a night. Where you once managed multimillion-dollar financial portfolios, you now can’t finish a grocery list. The capacity to focus for long periods of time helps reasoning and judgment in all decisions.
Attention may be selective. Only enjoyable or beneficial things like practicing golf or playing with grandchildren earn full focus.
Attention may be distracted. Important tasks like balancing a checkbook or cooking a meal take longer, with more unexpected foggy pit stops.
Decisions could appear impulsive, as the person has difficulty focusing on more than one option or long-term consequences.
Meanwhile, the person wittingly (or unwittingly) deprioritizes important elements of good judgment like eating healthy or making an important bank deposit.
A 72-year-old man momentarily forgetting his daughter’s name isn’t necessarily a harbinger of dementia. It may be something to monitor, but memory that controls decision-making should take priority for the time being.
Cognitive decline may affect short-term memories. Misremembering when you put roast in the oven or where a care partner parked the car can be dangerous and scary.
Fuzzy episodic memories, closely tied to executive function, allow people to choose based on past experience. The person may recall making a positive financial decision 30 years ago that would no longer be wise today. The problem here is failing to assess context for a present choice.
Procedural memories like how to drive a car or the quickest route home also may fade with age. A driver may forget to use a turning signal at a busy intersection. Or confused about directions, they may be indecisive on the road, potentially endangering themselves and other drivers.
Working memory lapses could affect how quickly an elder processes information when faced with a decision. The stress of acting in the moment could become overwhelming, inhibiting their ability to recall the trauma or reward of a past experience.
Declines in sensory perception and cognition have an uncertain relationship. Regardless, numerous studies indicate that sensory declines do impact judgment and decision-making in older people. Like many functions, regressions in all five senses over time are a natural part of aging.
Elders with difficulty seeing or hearing lack a full sensory perspective on which to make decisions. Your grandmother could be afraid to drive at night. It may not be because she’s losing her ability to function on the road, but that she merely needs new glasses. Without being able to see well, night or day, reactionary motor skills based on dynamic vision and depth perception may be slow or limited.
Similarly, hearing losses may cause an older person to misunderstand a direction or to tune out of social situations. Mishearing a doctor’s recommendation to take a certain dosage of a medication, for instance, may cause sickness. Meanwhile, your loved one may no longer seem lively — seeming distant or even aggravated — in family conversation. This may not be a sign of behavioral changes, but simply that they feel they can no longer enjoy a meaningful relationship.
Living Life to the Fullest Despite Changes in Reasoning and Judgment
Changes in reasoning and judgment are natural with age. We’ve built vast, meaningful stores of memories and experiences through the years, but our ability to recall and process them to make decisions sometimes slows with time. The reasons for this are many and complex.
That’s OK. You or your loved one are still the same person, perhaps only requiring a bit more care and attention. Life goes on in new and different ways. Your care partner may need help preparing dinner. You may need an accountant to double check your figures. Your father may just need a hearing aid.
For these decisions and more, Caregiver Support and Resources, LLC helps you to build a plan for today and tomorrow.