The impact of cognitive aging on route learning rate and the acquisition of landmark knowledge

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Aging is accompanied by changes in general cognitive functioning which may impact the learning rate of older adults; however, this is often not controlled for in cognitive aging studies. We investigated the contribution of differences in learning rates to age-related differences in landmark knowledge acquired from route learning. In Experiment 1 we used a standard learning procedure in which participants received a fixed amount of exposure to a route. Consistent with previous research, we found age-related deficits in associative cue and landmark sequence knowledge. Experiment 2 controlled for differences in learning rates by using a flexible exposure learning procedure. Specifically, participants were trained to a performance criterion during route learning before being tested on the content of their route knowledge. While older adults took longer to learn the route than younger adults, the age-related differences in associative cue knowledge were abolished. The deficit in landmark sequence knowledge, however, remained. Experiment 3 replicated these results and introduced a test situation in which a deficit in landmark sequence knowledge yielded an increased likelihood of disorientation in older adults. The findings of this study suggest that age-related deficits in landmark associative cue knowledge are attenuated by controlling for learning rates. In contrast, landmark sequence knowledge deficits persist and are best explained by changes in the learning strategy of older adults to acquire task essential associative cue knowledge at the expense of supplementary sequence knowledge.

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