Three Strategies to Mitigate Cognitive Decline


Take Home Message

1. Every human has a limited cognitive capacity

2. Cognitive decline begins in your late teens and steadily erodes your intelligence as you age

3. Despite this, many people remain highly productive even when they are well past their intellectual prime

4. One reason for this is the existence of effective strategies that help you overcome your cognitive limitations

5. Three proven strategies are 1) becoming a life-learner and domain expert; 2) developing character and personality traits that increase your professional and personal competence; 3) becoming highly skilled at distributed problem solving.

What is age-related cognitive decline?

If you are anything like me, one of your biggest fears is the degradation of your mind that occurs with age.

Sadly, this fear is justified. Just look at the data (Figure 1). Cognitive decline begins in our late teens and continues relentlessly throughout the rest of our lives, gradually eroding our ability to solve complex problems 1.

Cognitive decline does not necessarily correlate with real-world success

One can be forgiven for feeling melancholic if not outright depressed at the steady decline of intelligence that is a ‘normal’ part of the aging process.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Comparison of the novel problem-solving capacity and acquired knowledge of people versus their age. The mean and standard deviation of measures of novel problem solving, obtained by combining the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Fourth Edition (WAIS-IV) standardization sample and data obtained from 5, and the accumulated knowledge data was obtained from 5.

Age-related cognitive decline occurs primarily within the ‘fluid’ domains of intelligence that are involved in novel problem solving. Fluid intelligence includes the domains of working memory, flexible-thinking and processing speed 1-3.

Fluid intelligence, along with other fundamental cognitive domains such as planning, attention and inhibitory control, all support the executive cognitive functions that are critical for modulating our day-to-day behaviours and achieving life goals 4. Maintaining high executive function predicts a lifetime of career and academic success, social and marital harmony, health, financial stability, and an overall high quality of life 4.

Professions that require high levels of complex problem solving show a strong age-dependent reduction in productivity

When one compares the intellectual output from the fields of maths and science that require high levels of fluid intelligence for success, one sees that productivity peaks at an early age and then steadily declines (Figure 2).

The early peak and subsequent decline in productivity experienced by mathematicians and scientists agrees well with their declining of fluid intelligence (Figure 2). It is therefore not surprising that age has such a dramatic impact on professionals whose primary occupation relies heavily on abstract reasoning and complex problem solving.

CEO age distribution does not correlate with age-dependent cognitive decline

Surprisingly, the average age of CEO’s peaks much later in life, at around age 60 (Figure 2). This is unexpected, given that successful CEO’s must manage large companies within complex, dynamic and competitive business environments. Many of these companies produce, or are dependent upon, complex technologies.

So how is it possible that older CEO’s successfully run complex organisations at an age where, according to the average rate of cognitive decline, their capacity to solve complex problems is significantly compromised?

Figure 2
Figure 2. The average decline in fluid intelligence across age is shown in red. The average productive output for physics, chemistry and biological sciences across age is shown in green. The age distribution of North American CEO’s is shown in blue. The data for fluid intelligence and scientific output was derived from 1. The CEO age distribution was downloaded from Data USA.

The puzzle of Old CEO’s

In the words of Kuncel and Colleagues ‘Our research compiling thousands of studies across millions of subjects clearly establishes the importance of cognitive ability and personality traits as important predictors of some of the most important life outcomes6.

It follows that the steady decline in our problem-solving abilities predicts that our ability to function in real life situations should follow a similar a downward trajectory, as exemplified for scientists and mathematicians.

Fortunately, this is usually not the case. Many people remain highly productive in the work force  until the day they retire, despite being well past their intellectual prime. This includes CEOs. How can this be?

Age-related losses of intelligence are usually silent because most instances of real-world performance don’t require your maximum cognitive output 1. If they did, life would be even more stressful than it already is.

Second, successful people working within demanding careers deploy a variety of compensating mechanisms that offset the effects of cognitive decline 1. This is important, because utilising these same compensating strategies can help you perform at a high level throughout your working life and beyond, despite the creeping effects of age-related cognitive decline.

The effectiveness of compensation strategies that buffer people against the effects of cognitive decline explains, at least in part, the older age demographic of successful CEO’s (Figure 2). It has been convincingly argued that the mid-to-late-fifties is the ‘sweet spot’ between having developed sufficient professional expertise, while also maintaining enough fluid intelligence to effectively run complex organisations 1.

Three Effective and Proven Strategies to Help You Exceed Your Cognitive Limitations

1. Build your knowledge and domain expertise to help you solve complex problems.

As we age, we steadily accumulate knowledge and experience (Figure 1) 1. As you become an expert, your novel problem-solving ability becomes less critical, as you can solve problems by the retrieval and application of prior, well-tested solutions 1. Further, it is easier to maintain knowledge as opposed to learning new skills, which reduces your cognitive burden when operating within familiar environments 1.

Woman Sits On Floor Facing Gold Macbook 1181569
Becoming a lifelong learner protects you from some of the effects of age-related cognitive decline.

For these reasons we suggest that you should become a lifelong learner who is always seeking to increase the breadth and depth of your knowledge. Become a domain expert, relentlessly building your repertoire of tested solutions and strategies that you can apply to new problems. This will greatly reduce your dependence on raw computational power, not to mention save you much time and effort in the long run.

2. Develop personality and character traits that increase your effectiveness and competence.

Raw problem solving and computing power, although extremely useful, are not the only variables that contribute to success in life. Your professional and personal success depends to a large extent on additional factors other than fluid intelligence 6.

For example, personality and attitude have significant bearing on success within professional and personal contexts 7. So too does grit, focus, flexibility, and effort 8. Conscientiousness, emotional intelligence, practical intelligence and rationality all contribute to job performance and success far beyond raw cognitive ability 6,9-11. Of note, an underappreciated character trait that is nevertheless critical for long-term success is integrity 6,12-16.

The research makes it clear that success in life depends on personality factors such as work ethic, conscientiousness, personality, emotional intelligence, rationality and personal integrity. It follows that improving these characteristics should be a primary focus if you want to offset the effects of cognitive decline.

3. Become an expert in distributed problem solving.

Every human being has cognitive limitations. Because of this, every effective person must, at some point, implement strategic programs that compensate for their naturally limited computational power.

Distributed problem solving is ‘the collective effort of multiple problems solvers to combine their knowledge, information, and capabilities so as to develop solutions to problems that each could not have solved as well (if at all) alone’ 17. To effectively apply this strategy, it is essential that you develop and maintain professional and social networks that grant you access to the power of distributed problem solving. As an example, even the great Albert Einstein collaborated with his friend and Colleague Marcel Grossmann to develop the general theory of relativity 18.

Within a professional setting, effective forms of distributive problem solving include seeking assistance from trusted associates, in-house experts, or external consultants. In addition, you can join groups of online experts and enthusiasts on virtually any topic of importance or interest to you.

Computer science now provides a second form of distributive problem solving in the form of advanced web search engines and data repositories, machine learning algorithms and big data analyses.

In short, it has never been easier to access and implement a variety of effective distributed problem-solving strategies. Use them.

Three Strategies Overcome Cognitive Limitations


Every human, and indeed every computational device in the known universe, has cognitive limitations that are constrained by the laws of physics. Regrettably, our cognitive power also declines with age.

Fortunately for us, there exist highly effective compensation strategies that can help you mitigate, and in many cases overcome, your cognitive limitations.

Become a lifelong learner and domain expert; develop personality and character traits that make you more effective, productive, and competent; and avail yourself to the power of distributed problem solving.

These three strategies can help you exceed your cognitive limitations and achieve your life goals, whatever they may be.

References and Further Reading

1             Salthouse, T. Consequences of age-related cognitive declines. Annu Rev Psychol 63, 201-226  (2012).

2             Harada, C. N., Natelson Love, M. C. & Triebel, K. L. Normal cognitive aging. Clin Geriatr Med 29, 737-752 (2013).

3             Diamond, A. Executive functions. Annu Rev Psychol 64, 135-168 (2013).

4             Diamond, A. & Ling, D. S. Conclusions about interventions, programs, and approaches for improving executive functions that appear justified and those that, despite much hype, do not. Dev Cogn Neurosci 18, 34-48 (2016).

5             Salthouse, T. A. Decomposing age correlations on neuropsychological and cognitive variables. J Int Neuropsychol Soc 15, 650-661 (2009).

6             Kuncel, N. R., Ones, D. S. & Sackett, P. R. Individual differences as predictors of work, educational, and broad life outcomes. Personality and Individual Differences 49, 331-336 (2010).

7             Roberts, B. W., Kuncel, N. R., Shiner, R., Caspi, A. & Goldberg, L. R. The Power of Personality: The Comparative Validity of Personality Traits, Socioeconomic Status, and Cognitive Ability for Predicting Important Life Outcomes. Perspect Psychol Sci 2, 313-345 (2007).

8             Moss, P. & Tilly, C. Stories employers tell: Race, skill, and hiring in America.  (Russell Sage Foundation, 2001).

9             Sternberg, R. J. & Hedlund, J. Practical Intelligence, g, and Work Psychology. Human Performance 15, 143-160 (2002).

10           Hanson, M. Emotional Intelligence: Science and Myth. Psychiatric Services 55, 458-458 (2004).

11           Stanovich, K. E. What intelligence tests miss the psychology of rational thought.  (Yale University Press, 2009).

12           Ones, D.    The construct validity of integrity tests (ed Frank L. Schmidt) (ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 1993).

13           Sackett, P. R. Integrity Testing for Personnel Selection. Current Directions in Psychological Science 3, 73-77 (1994).

14           Ones, D. S. & Viswesvaran, C. Integrity Tests and Other Criterion‐Focused Occupational Personality Scales (COPS) Used in Personnel Selection. International Journal of Selection and Assessment 9, 31-39 (2001).

15           Wanek, J. E., Sackett, P. R. & Ones, D. S. Towards an understanding of integrity test similarities and differences: an item‐level analysis of seven tests. Personnel Psychology 56, 873-894 (2003).

16           Ones, D. S. Personality at Work: Raising Awareness and Correcting Misconceptions. Human Performance 18, 389-404 (2005).

17           Durfee, E. H. in ECCAI Advanced Course on Artificial Intelligence.  118-149 (Springer).

18           Einstein, A. & Grossmann, M. Entwurf einer verallgemeinerten Relativitätstheorie und einer Theorie der Gravitation.  (BG Teubner, 1913).


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Specializing in aging, pathology, immunology, cancer, and data science, Angus distills complex insights into accessible wisdom, empowering you to lead a longer, healthier life.

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Runner And Dog On Field Under Golden Sunset Sky In Evening Time.

Ten Minutes is All You Need

Research has shown that ten minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise performed each day is enough to significantly reduce your risk of early death.

Man flourishing alone

Can you flourish alone?

A review of eight flourishing scales has revealed that most components of flourishing do not require social interactions, showing that it is indeed possible to flourish in solitude.

Self Portrait Of A Woman With Cancer And Her Children

Stay Active to Survive Breast Cancer

Physical activity after breast cancer diagnosis increases your chance of surviving while reducing the probability of tumor recurrence.