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[edit] Introduction

Cognitions are structures or processes of knowledge and perception. Cognitive processes include all processes of thought and perception and their mental products, such as knowledge, attitudes and beliefs. They may operate consciously or unconsciously. Cognitive abilities are essential for effective performance in terms of perception, long- and short-term memory, conscious learning and memory, language and speech recognition, intelligence, and the formation of decisions and judgements. The question of whether intelligence is a coherent construct or whether there exist multiple independent intelligences is still contentious.

[edit] Facts

Day-to-day work in the knowledge economy is predominantly characterised by its cognitive demands. Human beings respond to these demands by activating various basic functions performed by brain processes.

Cognitive performance essentially comprises two central, mutually complementary dimensions: crystalline intelligence on the one hand and fluid intelligence on the other. Fluid intelligence is responsible for the speed of information processing, e.g. for the rapid storage and updating of information. Particularly important components of fluid intelligence are the “control functions” such as the ability to flexibly divert attention or switch between tasks and the ability to suppress unwanted stimuli and actions. Crystalline intelligence refers to the breadth and depth of acquired and learned knowledge. While fluid intelligence reduces with age, experiential knowledge, social intelligence and complex occupational knowledge only develop over the course of a person’s life. Competences such as personal responsibility, abstract thinking, and communication, cooperation, negotiation and teamwork skills all strengthen with age. Other capacities resulting from fluid intelligence may decline with age, however, although the course of this decline may vary very widely from skill to skill and person to person.

The idea that cognitive and psychomotor ability undergoes a general decline in older workers, the fundamental assumption in the deficit model, has now been refuted. The competence model that now prevails assumes that various capabilities and the functions that underlie them change in very different ways as people age.

The working environment also has a significant effect. Monotonous or insufficiently challenging work, as well as night-time and shift work, have a negative impact; demanding, mentally stimulating work and mental and physical training activities have a positive effect. One study, carried out by Adam Opel GmbH in Bochum, illustrates this: while older employees in demanding quality assurance jobs work more slowly than younger staff, their work is more accurate. On the other hand, specific cognitive deficits are apparent in assembly line workers from the age of 50.

Other studies confirm that loss of cognitive function is not an automatic consequence of ageing, but is linked to environmental factors. The type of work a person does plays a role in cognitive performance, as repetitive work intensifies age-related impairment. Thus there is a connection between physiological changes in the brain and monotonous work over many years.

Chronic stress also has a negative impact on the brain in all age groups. Stress hormones have been shown to impair memory. The effects of these factors are intensified when they operate over long periods.

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