Despite having less efficient memories, older women who go to college do as well in their studies as younger women. They also do as well as men, according to a study by experimental psychologist Eleanor Simon, a professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills.
When Simon decided to look into the issue in the late 1970s, most of the gerontological literature indicated that older people would do less well in university-level studies, she said. She had a ready-made population at Dominguez Hills. Each year since 1977 the university has enrolled between 52 and 80 so-called nontraditional women students. Simon's research included women students from age 49 to 79 (women in their 80s have attended the university) with an average age of 57. They were of different races and ethnic backgrounds.
'A Really Solid Group'
"We have a really solid group at this age level," she said. It was an unusual opportunity for research because "they were permitted to attend as regular students. We weren't making any allowances for them. So I could compare them with the 18-, 19-, 20-year-old 'usual' students.
"A lot of the literature on this age group shows them doing less well," Simon said, but her studies of cognitive functioning as well as achievement (grades) found the older women doing as well as other students. In fact, for most years, the grade point averages for the older group of students were slightly higher than that of young students. In 1984, the average GPA for the 76 women over 55 enrolled at the school was 2.89, compared to 2.49 for a sample of the same number of younger women students.
To look at students' cognitive functions as they apply to school work, Simon used a series of word tests to measure the ability of the students in two areas critical to academic success--remembering material and organizing material. Experimental groups saw lists of words naming groups of similar things, such as types of cars or flowers or furniture. The lists were flashed in random order one at a time on a screen and then subjects were given a limited time to write down as many words as they could recall. The tests showed how many words students could remember and how they organized the words they remembered in categories.
Simon said previous studies reported in gerontological journals indicated that old people are less able than young people to organize material. Her results showed that "recall was significantly lower among the older group, but organization wasn't," she said. "Older people may recall less, but they organize what they do recall."
Simon plans to continue by comparing older university students with people of their age who are active in the community but not undergoing the mental demands of an academic program. "I suspect they (those active in the community) will not do as well," she said. "You can read the paper and go to lectures, but nobody's forcing you to remember (as students must). Older people do well in recalling factual material, movies, novels, but on technical material, they don't do as well."
However, despite her findings and others, Simon said, she is not convinced that age is the reason for differences in ability to remember. "There is a myth about being older and losing your memory. Studies have shown that when people in middle age say they don't remember as well as they did, it's because of the myth about losing their memory. They believe it's due to age rather than that they've always been that way. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy."
Simon also tested the anxiety levels of the students and obtained biographical information about them. "I thought that older people would be more anxious and find it harder to adjust (to the university)," she said. Using a self-reporting anxiety scale, she found that there were high- and low-anxiety individuals in both age groups but no difference between the old and the young in anxiety about university work.
The older women went to college for varying reasons, she said. "Many of the older women were here because they were interested in personal enrichment and love of learning and many want careers. There were many in the human services programs interested in becoming administrators in (social service) agencies. Some want to be psychologists, some teachers. One lovely lady was taking English courses because she wanted to write a book."
Simon plans to continue the research, and if her findings continue to match her previous research results, "it will dispel some of the myths about thinking processes deteriorating as people age," Simon said. For universities, the information could help them decide whether they need to set up special programs to help older students compete academically, she said.