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Influences Upon Intellectual Development

Intellectual competence does not operate within a vacuum. It is affected both by an individual's physiological state (i.e., the individual's state of health and, in old age particularly, the presence or absence of chronic disease), as well as the presence or absence of a favorable environmental context and adequate support systems. Figure 4 provides a conceptual schema of the influences that impact the adult development of cognitive/intellectual competence.

Adult cognitive functioning must, of course, be initially based upon both heritable (genetic) influences and the early environmental influences typically experienced within the home of the biological parents. It has been suggested by some behavior geneticists that much of the early environmental influences are nonshared (i.e., not shared by all members of a family). However, there is retrospective evidence that some early shared environmental influences may affect adult intellectual performance (see Schaie & Zuo, 2000). Both genetic and early environmental factors are thought to influence midlife cognitive functioning. Early environmental influences will, of course, also exert influences on midlife social status. Genetic factors are also likely to be implicated in the rate of cognitive decline in adulthood. Thus far, the best-studied gene in this context is the apolipoprotein E (ApoE) gene, one of whose alleles is thought to be a risk factor for Alzheimer's disease. ApoE status is therefore also considered a factor in cognitive development (the expression of this gene is probably not important prior to midlife).

Influence of health. Considerable information is available on the reciprocal effects of chronic disease and intellectual abilities. It has been observed that decline in intellectual performance in old age is substantially accelerated by the presence of chronic diseases. Conditions such as cardiovascular disease, renal disease, osteoarthritis, and diabetes tend to interfere with lifestyles that are conducive to the maintenance of intellectual abilities, while they also have direct effects on brain functioning. One study found that individuals free of chronic disease perform intellectually at levels that are characteristic of those seven years younger who are suffering from such diseases. However, it has also been shown that the age of onset of chronic disease is later, and the disease severity is less, when it occurs in individuals functioning at high intellectual levels.

Influence of lifestyles. Many studies have related individual differences in socioeconomic circumstances (and resultant lifestyles) to the maintenance of high levels of intellectual functioning into old age. In particular, it has been shown that individuals who actively pursue intellectually stimulating activities seem to decline at lower rates than those who do not. Such pursuits may include travel, intensive reading programs, participation in clubs and organizations, and cultural and continuing-education activities. Conversely, those individuals whose opportunities for stimulating activities have been reduced due to the loss of a spouse or other factors restricting Figure 4 Conceptual model of health and environmental factors influencing the adult development of intellectual/cognitive competence. SOURCE: Schaie, K. W. (2000). "The Impact of Longitudinal Studies on Understanding Development from Young Adulthood to Old Age." International Journal of Behavioral Development (2000). Reprinted with permission. their social networks may be at greatest risk for decline.

Influence of education. Both the maintenance of intellectually stimulating activities and the pursuit of healthful lifestyles appear to be dependent to a considerable extent on an individual's level of attained education. Over the course of the twentieth century, in the United States, there was an average increase in educational exposure amounting to approximately six years for men and five years for women. This societal shift may be largely responsible for many of the favorable cohort differences in intellectual abilities described in this article. Those advantaged educationally are also more likely to be engaged in intellectually stimulating work experiences. These, in turn, have been shown to have favorable effects on the maintenance of intellectual functions into old age. Finally, it should be noted that while there is eventual age-related decline in intelligence for both the educationally advantaged and disadvantaged, those who start at a high level are likely to retain sufficient intellectual competence to last throughout life.



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Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 2Intelligence - Historical Background, Conceptualizations Of Intelligence, Age Changes In Intelligence, Age Differences In Intelligence, Cohort Differences In Intellectual Abilities