Aging and Mental Arithmetic

Authored by: Sandrine Duverne , Patrick Lemaire

Handbook of Mathematical Cognition

Print publication date:  December  2004
Online publication date:  August  2005

Print ISBN: 9781841694115
eBook ISBN: 9780203998045
Adobe ISBN: 9781135423667


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Mental arithmetic, or the ability to find solutions to problems like 4 × 7 or 238 + 567, has been one of the most frequently investigated mathematical abilities by cognitive aging researchers. Overall, like many other types of cognitive performance, both simple and complex arithmetic performance have been shown to decline with age (Allen, Ashcraft, & Weber, 1992; Allen, Smith, Jerge, & Vires-Collins, 1997; Charness & Campbell, 1988; Geary, Frensch, & Wiley, 1993; Geary & Lin, 1998; Geary & Wiley, 1991; Salthouse & Coon, 1994; Sliwinski, Buschke, Kuslansky, Senior, & Scarisbrick, 1994; Verhaeghen, Kliegl, & Mayr, 1997; see Geary et al., 1997; Geary, Salthouse, Chen, & Fan, 1996, for exceptions). However, when analyzed in detail, age-related changes in adults’ arithmetic performance show a fascinating set of patterns, with some aspects declining and others remaining unimpaired with age. The goal of the present chapter is to review findings on aging and mental arithmetic. We pursue this goal by reviewing studies that have precisely analyzed age-related differences in arithmetic performance. We report empirical evidence observed in classic experimental tasks of arithmetic problem solving (i.e., strategies, latencies, and error rates in verification and production tasks) rather than those observed in standardized tests of mental arithmetic (e.g., Addition and Subtraction/Multiplication subtests of the French Kit; French, Ekstrom, & Price, 1963) that do not provide such specific information. First, we look at strategic changes in adults’ arithmetic. Then we consider how age-related changes in processing resources account for some of the age-related changes in mental arithmetic. Third, data on the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on arithmetic are reviewed. Finally, we provide general conclusions and suggestions for future research. This review of aging and mental arithmetic will highlight how research on aging contributes to our further understanding of both general and specific cognitive processes of arithmetic performance.

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