Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Part 2: How to Protect the Aging Work Force; in the Second Part of Her Series, Ergonomics Expert Cynthia Roth Offers Employers Advice on What They Can Do to Encourage Good Mental Health and Performance among Older Employees

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Part 2: How to Protect the Aging Work Force; in the Second Part of Her Series, Ergonomics Expert Cynthia Roth Offers Employers Advice on What They Can Do to Encourage Good Mental Health and Performance among Older Employees

Article excerpt

Last month, we examined the physical changes that the body undergoes with age and the steps that employers can take to ensure that their workplaces are designed to accommodate those changes and not pose an unnecessary threat of injury. As we noted, we want the brain power and the experience and knowledge that older workers provide, but not the lost work-time days, workers' compensation claims or any of the negatives associated with injuries/illnesses.

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Now let's address the slowing of mental processes. "Memory" is not a single entity or ability. Memory is a process that consists of a number of components, each controlled by various neurological systems. For the purposes of this article, the term "memory" is used broadly to apply to all aspects of our ability to learn, retain and recall information. In addition to memory, this information can also be applied to other thinking skills, such as attention and reasoning.

Maintaining physical health is essential for optimal memory functioning. Cognition refers to mental processes used for perceiving, remembering and thinking. Most studies show that, in general, cognitive abilities are the greatest when people are in their 30s and 40s. Cognitive abilities stay about the same until the late 50s or early 60s, at which point they begin to decline, but only to a small degree. The effects of cognitive changes are usually not noticed until the 70s and beyond. These statements are based on data from studies where averages were calculated for each age group. Within each age group, however, there are wide variations in cognitive ability. One study of intelligence over a lifetime found that by the age of 81, only 30 to 40 percent of study participants had a significant decline in mental ability. Two-thirds of people at this age had only a small amount of decline. And only certain cognitive abilities decline, while others may improve. Very few workplaces have employees working full-time at the age of 81. This should dispel most employers' fears of diminished cognitive ability among their older workers.

Mental processing and reaction time become slower with age. This slowing of information processing speed actually begins in young adulthood (the late 20s), although imperceptibly at first. By the time people are 60 or older (depending on the individual), they will generally take longer to perform mental tasks than younger people. On tests of intelligence that require the person to perform tasks within a short time frame, older adults often do worse than younger counterparts. In the past, this was considered to be a measure of decreased cognitive functioning. However, on intelligence tests with liberal time limits, older adults are often able to perform just as well as younger people. Therefore, it is now thought by some experts that older adults don't lose mental competence; it simply takes them longer to process the necessary information. In addition to cognitive decline, slowed processing speed has also been linked to a decline in motor function. Older adults may have less dexterity and coordination than when they were younger. They may walk slower and take a longer time to react.

It's important to emphasize that the changes in cognition described here do not necessarily happen to everyone. There is wide variation among individuals. Additionally, for those who do experience declines in cognitive functioning, they are usually not disabling. The degree of decline is small and should not interfere with normal day-to-day functioning. And there are many ways to compensate for the deficits or even to regain lost function. It may take longer for an older person to learn something new, but it's still possible to learn it.

STAYING MENTALLY HEALTHY

Memory difficulties can be minimized by using calendars, lists and other memory aids. Here are some additional solutions to prevent or slow the diminished cognitive function for older employees. …

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