When faced with uncertain situations, people are less able to make decisions as they age, according to U.S. scientists.

The research also found 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.

Scientists at Yale School of Medicine, whose work was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said these skills have implications for problems associated with poor decision-making.

Ifat Levy, assistant professor in comparative medicine and neurobiology at Yale, recruited 135 healthy participants to study how decision-making functions change across a lifespan by measuring attitudes toward risk and ambiguity in people between the ages of 12 and 90.

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 Dr 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 participants.

Even the healthiest members of the older age group showed profoundly compromised decision-making.

Risk attitudes also showed systematic changes across the lifespan of people, which the authors say have important policy implications.

‘This is an issue of pressing importance that has only received limited attention,’ Dr Levy said.

‘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 populations.’

She believes the research is one of the first studies undertaken on age and preference but that further work is needed.

Dr Levy said: ‘Even though this is a small study, it revealed the existence of important age-related patterns in decision-making.’

source: dailymail UK