While it has long been assumed age leads to a steady deterioration of brain function, researchers at the University of Tuebingen in Germany suggest older brains may take longer to process ever increasing amounts of knowledge, a process that may be misidentified as declining capacity.
Because most standard cognitive measures may confuse increased knowledge for declining capacity, such measures are flawed, the researchers said.
Led by Michael Ramscar, the research team used computers, programmed to act as though they were humans, to "read" a certain amount each day, learning new things along the way.
When a computer was allowed to "read" just a limited amount, its performance on cognitive tests resembled that of a young adult.
However, when the same computer was exposed to an amount of data which represented a lifetime of experiences, its performance looked like that of an older adult.
It was slower -- not because its processing capacity had declined, but because increased "experience" gave it more data to process, and that processing takes time.
"What does this finding mean for our understanding of our aging minds, for example older adults' increased difficulties with word recall? These are traditionally thought to reveal how our memory for words deteriorates with age, but Big Data adds a twist to this idea," Ramscar said.
The study has been published in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science.