Task coordination and aging: explorations of executive control processes in the task switching paradigm

Acta Psychol (Amst). 1999 Apr;101(2-3):339-78. doi: 10.1016/s0001-6918(99)00011-6.


A number of models of cognitive aging suggest that older adults exhibit disproportionate performance decrements on tasks which require executive control processes. In a series of three studies we examined age-related differences in executive control processes and more specifically in the executive control processes which underlie performance in the task switching paradigm. Young and old adults were presented with rows of digits and were required to indicate whether the number of digits (element number task) or the value of the digits (digit value task) were greater than or less than five. Switch costs were assessed by subtracting the reaction times obtained on non-switch trials from trials following a task switch. Several theoretically interesting results were obtained. First, large age-related differences in switch costs were found early in practice. Second, and most surprising, after relatively modest amounts of practice old and young adults switch costs were equivalent. Older adults showed large practice effects on switch trials. Third, age-equivalent switch costs were maintained across a two month retention period. Finally, the main constraint on whether age equivalence was observed in task switching performance was memory load. Older adults were unable to capitalize on practice under high memory loads. These data are discussed in terms of their implications for both general and process specific cognitive aging models.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Reaction Time