Even Healthy Senior Citizens Struggle with
Decision-Making and Avoid Risk
With increased age comes decreased risk-taking in
decision-making, finds new study
Oct. 4, 2013 - When a senior citizen has trouble
making a decision, and seems to be seeking the choice with the least
risk, many may be prone to suggest there is some dementia involved. Not
so, finds a new study – people are just less able to make decisions as
they age. And, when they do, they are most likely to choose the safest
The study by researchers at Yale School of Medicine
also concluded that older people are more risk-averse than their midlife
counterparts when choosing between possible gains, but more risk-seeking
when choosing between losses.
Scientists have long-observed that cognitive
function improves throughout adolescence, peaks in adulthood, and
declines with age, but behavioral changes in decision-making across a
lifespan have been largely unstudied. These skills have implications for
problems associated with poor decision-making.
Ifat Levy, assistant professor in comparative
medicine and neurobiology at Yale, and colleagues recruited 135 healthy
participants to study how decision-making functions change across a
lifespan by measuring attitudes toward risk and ambiguity between the
ages of 12 and 90.
The authors describe their findings:
found that healthy elders between the ages of 65 and 90 were
strikingly inconsistent in their choices compared with younger
subjects. Just as elders show profound declines in cognitive
function, they also show profound declines in choice rationality
compared with their younger peers.
we found that the widely documented phenomenon of ambiguity
aversion is specific to the gain domain and does not occur in
the loss domain, except for a slight effect in older adults.
extending an earlier report by our group, we found that risk
attitudes across the life span show an inverted U-shaped
function; both elders and adolescents are more risk-averse than
their midlife counterparts.
together, these characterizations of decision-making function
across the life span in this urban cohort strengthen the
conclusions of previous reports suggesting a profound impact of
aging on cognitive function in this domain.”
The participants made 320 choices grouped in blocks
of gain and loss trials.
In gain trials, participants chose between a
certain gain of $5 and a lottery that differed systematically in the
amount of a possible monetary gain. Loss trials were identical to gain
trials, except all amounts were negative.
In one example, a participant faced a choice
between losing $5 for certain, and equal chances of losing $8 or losing
nothing ($0). This design allowed Levy and her team to estimate
attitudes to both known (risky) and unknown (ambiguous) financial risks.
By repeating each choice situation several times,
the design also allowed the investigators to estimate how consistent the
participants were in the choices they made.
On average, older adults made decisions that
resulted in the lowest expected monetary outcomes, compared with midlife
Even the healthiest of elders showed profoundly
compromised decision-making, and risk attitudes showed systematic
changes across the lifespan that the authors say have important policy
"This is an issue of pressing importance that has
only received limited attention," said Levy. "It is often assumed that
decision-makers at any age have both the right and ability to make their
own choices that maximizes their welfare, but our data suggest that this
one-size-fits-all approach may be wrong for models that target broad
Levy said this is one of the first studies done on
age and preference, but further work needs to be done. "Even though this
is a small study, it revealed the existence of important age-related
patterns in decision-making," she said.
The study appears in the Sept. 30 Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences.
Other authors on the study include Agnieszka Tymula
from the University of Sydney, Australia, Lior A. Rosenberg Belmaker,
and Lital Ruderman from Yale School of Medicine, and Paul W. Glimcher
from New York University.
The study was supported by the National Institute
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