Age differences in reaction time and attention in a national telephone sample of adults: education, sex, and task complexity matter

Dev Psychol. 2008 Sep;44(5):1421-9. doi: 10.1037/a0012845.


This study demonstrated effects of age, education, and sex on complex reaction time in a large national sample (N = 3,616) with a wide range in age (32-85) and education. Participants completed speeded auditory tasks (from the MIDUS [Midlife in the U.S.] Stop and Go Switch Task) by telephone. Complexity ranged from a simple repeated task to an alternating task that involved central executive processes including attention switching and inhibitory control. Increased complexity was associated with slower responses in older adults, those with lower education, and women, even after controlling for differences in health status. Higher levels of education were associated with greater central executive efficiency across adulthood: Overall, adults with college degrees performed on complex tasks like less educated individuals who were 10 years younger, up to age 75. These findings suggest that advanced education can moderate age differences on complex speeded tasks that require central executive processes, at least up to the point in old age at which biological declines predominate. The approach demonstrates the utility of combining laboratory paradigms with survey methods to enable the study of larger, more diverse and representative samples across the lifespan.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Attention*
  • Educational Status*
  • Female
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Interviews as Topic*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Problem Solving*
  • Reaction Time*
  • Reversal Learning
  • Sampling Studies
  • Sex Factors
  • United States