Benedict Carey in The New York Times:
Behind all those canned compliments for older adults — spry! wily! wise! — is an appreciation for something that scientists have had a hard time characterizing: mental faculties that improve with age. Knowledge is a large part of the equation, of course. People who are middle-aged and older tend to know more than young adults, by virtue of having been around longer, and score higher on vocabulary tests, crossword puzzles and other measures of so-called crystallized intelligence. Still, young adults who consult their elders (mostly when desperate) don’t do so just to gather facts, solve crosswords or borrow a credit card. Nor, generally, are they looking for help with short-term memory or puzzle solving. Those abilities, called fluid intelligence, peak in the 20s. No, the older brain offers something more, according to a new paper in the journal Psychological Science. Elements of social judgment and short-term memory, important pieces of the cognitive puzzle, may peak later in life than previously thought. The postdoctoral fellows Joshua Hartshorne of M.I.T. and Laura Germine of Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital analyzed a huge trove of scores on cognitive tests taken by people of all ages. The researchers found that the broad split in age-related cognition — fluid in the young, crystallized in the old — masked several important nuances.
…The picture that emerges from these findings is of an older brain that moves more slowly than its younger self, but is just as accurate in many areas and more adept at reading others’ moods — on top of being more knowledgeable. That’s a handy combination, given that so many important decisions people make intimately affects others. No one needs a cognitive scientist to explain that it’s better to approach a boss about a raise when he or she is in a good mood. But the older mind may be better able to head off interpersonal misjudgments and to navigate tricky situations.