The process of getting older is commonly associated with a decline in intellectual capability. Older adults are often
perceived to be less nimble at picking up new skills, slower to numerate and have declining memory. However, empirical
research on this topic has highlighted how the onset of cognitive decline actually occurs much later than commonly believed.
In this article, we explore the process of cognitive aging and highlight some recommendations for organisations that conduct
cognitive ability testing for different age groups.
RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN COGNITIVE ABILITY AND AGE
In the 1900s, the development of cognitive ability tests has enabled the standardised assessment of intelligence on a
broader scale. During that period, many large-scale general population studies showed that the trend of cognitive ability
peaks around the ages of 20 to 30, followed by a steady decline. The figure below shows a typical chart depicting the
apparent decline in cognitive ability tests scores with increasing age, using data on the Standard Progressive Matrices (SPM)
obtained from a series of studies conducted between 1939 and 1947 in the United Kingdom
Figure 1. Chart of SPM scores by age from studies between 1939 and 1947
However, some have called into question the interpretation suggested by these studies, highlighting inadequacies in
the study design that failed to detangle the impact of age from other confounding factors that influence intelligence
Specifically, many of the early studies made use of cross-sectional assessments in which individuals from varying age
groups were tested within a single time frame. Thus, the results not only reflected the performance of individuals of
different ages but also individuals of different generations. These observed trends could have arisen due to the effects
of age or due to generational differences in factors that influence cognitive capacity, such as years and quality of
education and exposure to environmental complexity.
Insights from longitudinal studies
Since then, more rigorous longitudinal studies on the issue have led to new insights on the relationship between cognitive ability
and age. A particularly significant study was the Seattle Longitudinal Study (Schaie, 1994; Schaie & Hertzog, 1986), which
tracked the long-term cognitive performance of individuals in the United States from 1956. Over a period of about 40 years,
more than 3,900 adults from age 22 to 84 were tested in seven major testing cycles on a range of cognitive domains.1
The results challenged some earlier views and provided a deeper understanding of how cognitive ability changes with age.
As illustrated in the following table charting the relationship between cognitive performance and age, different abilities
show different patterns of change over time. Perceptual speed declines across adulthood and numeric ability starts to show
moderate decline at age 50. However, it turns out that other abilities such as spatial orientation, verbal ability and
inductive reasoning show a slight increase in early adulthood before reaching a plateau that is sustained till age 60.
Thus, contrary to earlier studies that show an early onset of cognitive decline, these abilities are relatively stable
across adulthood, with declines in performance only evident after 60 (Schaie, 1994).
Figure 2. Chart of longitudinal mean cognitive ability scores by age, from Schaie (1994).
These findings have been replicated in a range of other studies (McDonald-Miszczak, Hertzog & Hultsch, 1995; Zelinski &
Burnight, 1997; Baltes, Staudinger, & Lindenberger, 1999), therefore suggesting that generational differences or cohort
effects had inflated the cognitive ability differences found in earlier studies on cognitive aging. In fact, studies using
more recently accumulated longitudinal data have found compelling evidence for the inflationary influence of cohort effects
on the cognitive aging process (Zelinski & Kennison, 2007; Zelinski, Kennison, Watts & Lewis, 2009).
FLUID AND CRYSTALLISED INTELLIGENCE
The research described above have primarily studied how fluid intelligence changes with age.
Fluid intelligence refers to the ability to reason logically, see complex relationships and solve novel problems,
independent of acquired knowledge (Horn, 1967). Fluid intelligence is often contrasted with crystallised intelligence,
which refers to the variety of skills and knowledge one acquires from learning and acculturation (Horn & Cattell, 1967)
As crystallised intelligence involves knowledge acquisition and learning from experiences, studies on the relationship
between crystallised intelligence and age show markedly different trends.
In a noteworthy study by Ackerman & Rolfhus (1999), a wide range of ability tests (fluid intelligence) and knowledge
scales (crystallised intelligence) were administered to young adults age 18 to 27, and middle-aged adults age 30 and above.
While middle-aged adults performed poorer than young adults on numerical and spatial ability tests, they performed better
on the verbal ability tests and vastly out-performed young adults on all of the knowledge tests (spanning the Humanities,
Sciences, and Civics), except Chemistry. These results show that when it comes to acquired knowledge, middle-aged adults
who have more years of experience on their side outperform young adults by a long stretch.
KEY RECOMMENDATIONS AND CONCLUSION
On the whole, research suggests that while reaction time and information processing speed display a gradual decline over
adulthood, there is relative maintenance of reasoning ability across adulthood, with declines only noticeable around age 50
to 60. Moreover, intellectual capabilities across adulthood, particularly crystallised intelligence, arguably increase as
individuals accumulate far greater knowledge across a wide range of domains.
In the recruitment context, this distinction between fluid and crystallised intelligence highlights the need to consider
both 'raw' intellectual ability and acquired skills and knowledge when assessing the intellectual capacity of applicants.
While the assessment of acquired job-relevant skills may be difficult for fresh graduates, it becomes increasingly important
for mid-career applicants who have the years of experience behind them. A key consideration in making selection decisions is
the extent to which these mid-career applicants have acquired and internalised the necessary skills and knowledge from those
For organisations that administer cognitive ability tests to different age groups, these findings also have several
implications for the interpretation of test scores. Despite the common belief that younger candidates have a distinct
advantage in cognitive ability tests, research shows that decline in intellectual capability is only noticeable after the
age of 50 to 60. This suggests that similar standards of cognitive ability performance can be applied to candidates of
different age groups. Nonetheless, the evidence of cohort effects highlight that it is always ideal to use age-appropriate
norm groups for the interpretation of test scores, especially in speeded tests or tests of numerical ability.
Loh Yu Xing is Manager, Selection & Assessment, in the Centre for Leadership Development in the Civil Service College. The Centre provides leadership assessment, leadership development and leadership research services.
||Cognitive domains assessed in the study: Perceptual Speed — The ability to find figures,
make comparisons, and carry out other simple tasks involving visual perception with speed and
accuracy; Numeric Ability — The ability to understand numerical relationships and compute simple
arithmetic functions; Spatial Orientation — The ability to visualize and mentally manipulate
spatial configurations, maintain orientation with respect to spatial objects, and perceive
relationships among objects in space; Verbal Ability — Language knowledge and comprehension
measured by assessing the scope of a person's recognition vocabulary; Inductive Reasoning —
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