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Still Competent after All These Years
Older air traffic controllers perform as well as young on job-related tasks.
It’s possible that air traffic controllers are being put out to pasture sooner than necessary, according to new findings from LAS psychology professor Arthur Kramer.
Because of the intensity of their jobs, air traffic controllers in the United States are required to retire at age 56. But this poses problems because most of the 14,800 air traffic controllers in the U.S. were hired in the mid-1980s when President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 controllers who had gone out on strike. Now, many of the controllers hired in the 1980s are nearing mandatory retirement age, and government reports have warned that the upcoming wave of retirements could undermine the safety of the nation’s aviation system.
In the University of Illinois study, Kramer’s team turned to Canada, where the mandatory retirement age is 65. They compared Canadian air traffic controllers from two age groups—the older controllers (ages 53 to 64) and their younger peers (ages 20 to 27). They found that the older air traffic controllers performed just as well as their young colleagues on complex, job-related tasks.
“The question we were interested in was whether older controllers could continue to do the job,” says Kramer, who conducted the study with graduate student Ashley Nunes. “If so, perhaps we could keep these people on the job for a little longer, and this way provide more time for the transition and appropriate training of new controllers.”
According to Kramer, the older subjects were slower on simple memory or decision-making tasks not directly related to air traffic control. But on the tests that simulated the tasks of an air traffic controller, the older and younger controllers were equally capable.
The older controllers did well, says Kramer, because “they’ve gained decades of knowledge in their profession. That’s allowed them to offset the costs of not having quite the memory they used to have, and certainly not being able to respond as quickly as they once could.”
He says their “crystallized intelligence,” which comes from years of attention and practice, compensated for any loss of “fluid intelligence,” which includes memory capacity and recall speed.
In other words, experience matters.
Kramer is one of the nation’s leading experts in studying age-related declines in cognitive abilities, as well as factors that can slow these declines. In a different but related project, for instance, Kramer’s team discovered that you’re never too old to conquer the world. They recently found that strategic video games, in which players build nations and conquer territory, can improve many cognitive functions that normally decline with age.
In the video game project, the U of I team studied 40 older adults. Half of them were given 23 1/2 hours of special training in playing Rise of Nations, a video game that awards points for building cities, feeding and employing citizens, maintaining an adequate military, and expanding territory. All 40 older adults were assessed before, during, and after the training on what are called “executive control processes.”
“Older people tend to fare less well on executive control processes,” says Kramer. “These include things like scheduling, planning, working memory, multitasking, and dealing with ambiguity.”
Researchers found that the gamers became significantly better and faster on many of these executive control processes than the non-gamers. What’s more, this was the first study to find pronounced improvements in cognitive skills that go beyond the specific skills learned in the video games. It showed that multidimensional training can affect many different components of brain function, says Chandramallika Basak, a research associate who served as lead author on the study.
Strategic video games are “one way in which older people can stay mentally fit, but I’m not suggesting that it’s the only thing they should do,” Kramer adds. Other activities—in particular socializing, exercising, and eating well—are also vital.
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