Has the decision-making capability of senior citizens declined to such an extent that they need to be protected as a separate class?
The question comes up because Congress and various state legislatures have proposed and passed many regulations over the years to protect senior citizens. More recently, attention has focused on how insurance agents interact with seniors, and the insurance business is becoming increasingly interested in this question.
First, let’s consider who is a senior citizen. The U.S. Senate Committee on Aging describes senior citizens as anyone age 60 or older, but most state regulatory acts and proposals seem to define a senior as a citizen age 65 and up. Various studies on aging and decision-making use “old age” subject groups ranging from 50 to 82.
It appears that attempting to define “senior citizens” via a stated age bracket is entirely arbitrary. People age differently. The decision-making capabilities of the average 55-year-old appear to be very similar to the average 70-year-old, but a specific 55-year-old may have much worse mental acuity than a specific 85-year-old.
For this article, let’s refer to “seniors” as people older than middle-aged and leave it at that.
A review of over 40 peer-reviewed articles about the effects of aging on decision-making reveals conflicting views of seniors’ decision-making capabilities.
For instance, some studies find that seniors make risk-taking decisions equivalent to those of young adults and that senior economic decision-making ability is not impaired by age. But a couple of studies find that seniors make decisions about as well as young adults with frontal-lobe brain damage–essentially finding that people start to lose it at age 50 and then get steadily worse. More than a few studies just punt, saying “some” seniors have worse abilities than younger people.
But all studies agree that aging negatively impacts mental powers to some extent. After a certain point, memory skills slide, and the older one is, the more likely the person is to rely on mental shortcuts to reach a decision rather than examining the problem anew. For example, if a senior is facing a complicated decision, the person is more likely to apply the results of a similar previous decision to the new one, rather than to make the decision based solely on the circumstances on the new situation.
However, the studies disagree about whether aging causes the average senior to make worse economic decisions than those of young adults.