The Benefits of Maintaining a Curious Mind in Older Age

While older adults typically experience declines in cognitive functioning, including a general slowing of cognitive processes, declining episodic memory, and lower working memory capacity (see Salthouse, 2010 for a review), some research has examined the role of motivation in maintaining cognitive functioning in older age. For example, older adults are able to perform at a high level on difficult cognitive tasks if the task is sufficiently motivating (Hess et al., 2001). In addition, within specific tasks, older adults can prioritize and selectively remember important or valuable information over less important information (Castel, 2008). It seems that motivation may play a significant role in one’s ability to function at a high level in older age, and one motivational factor that is beginning to be studied more recently is curiosity. In this post, I review how curiosity and related constructs may change as we age, serve as protective factors, and influence behaviors and healthy aging habits in older age.

Curiosity is generally defined as seeking information due to an internal drive (Kidd & Hayden, 2015). To understand how curiosity changes in older age, research has examined curiosity and related constructs across a wide range of ages. These studies have shown that openness to experience and novelty seeking, which are highly related to curiosity, tend to decline with increasing age (Reio & Choi, 2004; Robinson et al., 2017; but see Giambra et al., 1992). In addition, variety-seeking behaviors, or the tendency to try new things for the sake of variety (e.g., seeking new experiences and desire to travel) may decline with age (Roth et al., 2007; Zuckerman et al., 1978), suggesting that older adults try new things less often and perhaps are less interested in doing so. Even some theories of aging support these findings. For example, one theory – socioemotional selectivity theory (Carstensen et al., 1999) – suggests that we focus less on knowledge acquisition and more on emotional goals and relationship building as we get older, and therefore predicts that curiosity and interest in learning new information decline with age.

Despite this general decline in curiosity, maintained curiosity in older age is associated with better memory and well-being (Kashdan, 2009; Sakaki et al., 2018; Stine-Morrow, 2007). One study even showed that curiosity was associated with greater survival rates over a five-year period in older adults (Swan & Carmelli, 1996). In fact, a general curiosity about memory and the brain in older age have likely contributed to the increased popularity of “brain training” games and programs. A variety of computerized games for cognitive training have been developed in the past decade, with many claiming to have been developed with the help of psychologists and neuroscientists (e.g., Elevate:; Peak: However, only a few have been subject to the peer-review process, including NeuroRacer (Anguera et al., 2013), Lumosity (Hardy et al., 2015), and Cogmed (Brehmer et al., 2012). While some of these apps or programs have found evidence for improvements in abilities that are specific to the task, the evidence for long-term improvements or transfer of these skills to other domains is weak, according to a meta-analysis (Melby-Lervåg & Hulme, 2013). In fact, one study found that commercial cognitive training does not improve scores on standard memory and attention tests any more than playing video games that are not designed to improve cognition (Kable et al., 2017). As a result, Lumosity dealt with lawsuits over false advertising. It seems that brain training may improve the ability to complete the specific task being trained (i.e., performing crosswords makes you better at crosswords), but they may not help you remember, for example, where you left your car keys. Despite this lack of evidence for brain training programs, there is no known harm in engaging in these activities. If people enjoy working crossword puzzles, for example, they may experience internal rewards, like improved mood, and curiosity may be a driver of these internal rewards.

As with puzzles and brain training games, interest and curiosity may also motivate older adults to engage in hobbies or other skill learning. For example, older adults participating in lifelong learning education programs often report doing so in order to learn new things (Kim & Merriam, 2004; Xiong & Zuo, 2019). Some have even suggested that curiosity may serve as a protective factor in older age, in that greater levels of curiosity may lead older adults to engage in activities that are known to be associated with healthy aging (Sakaki et al., 2018). As an example, learning new challenging skills over time, such as photography or a new language, has been shown to improve cognitive outcomes like episodic memory and speed of processing (Park et al., 2014). While the long-term benefits of complex skill learning are unknown, these activities may be motivated by interest and curiosity, leading to long-term engagement. Unlike brain training, long-term engagement may lead to longer-lasting improvements in cognitive functioning.

            On a smaller scale, being curious about specific information, like trivia questions, may influence memory for that information. Some evidence has shown that higher interest in information presented in a lab-based task can lead older adults to perform similarly to younger adults when tested on that information (Zacks & Hasher, 2006). Another study showed that when older adults rated trivia questions as more interesting, they were more likely to remember the answers even after a week delay, whereas the relationship between interest and memory a week later was not as strong for younger adults (McGillivray et al., 2015). In addition, when participants are more interested in some central information, unrelated or peripheral information is actually better remembered as well (Gruber et al., 2014). The reason older adults can better remember information they are interested in is not entirely known. It is possible that interest or curiosity reduces the effort needed to learn the information. On the other hand, older adults may be more motivated to remember information they are curious about and, therefore, allocate more attention and effort to that information. Either way, the finding that older adults can better remember information they are interested in suggests that tasks designed to be completed in a lab setting might see benefits if they sufficiently capture the interests of older adult participants.

            Curiosity and interest can serve as powerful motivating factors in cognition and behavior as we age. While more research is needed to understand how and why curiosity may be motivating in older age, there is good initial evidence that curiosity is a protective factor in older age and can potentially lead to better healthy aging behaviors. In addition, memory is often better for information we are interested in, even in older age. The study of curiosity and its effects on behavior, cognition, and well-being is an exciting new avenue of research.   


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