• Perceptual salience rather than attentional focus governs stimulus processing in old age.
• Older adults rely more on environmental prompts for action than younger adults do.
• Environmental support helps older adults to perform but results in loss of internal control.
• The structure of the environment matters, especially for older adults.
It has been known for some time that memory deficits among older adults increase when self-initiated processing is required and decrease when the environment provides task-appropriate cues. We propose that this observation is not confined to memory but can be subsumed under a more general developmental trend. In perception, learning or memory, and action management, older adults often rely more on external information than younger adults do, probably both as a direct reflection and indirect adaptation to difficulties in internally triggering and maintaining cognitive representations. This age-graded shift from internal towards environmental control is often associated with compromised performance. Cognitive aging research and the design of aging-friendly environments can benefit from paying closer attention to the developmental dynamics and implications of this shift.
Environmental support has a bright and a dark side: it helps aging individuals to perform but comes with a loss in internal control. It follows that the environment matters, especially in old age. The initiation and maintenance of internal control are costly, both cognitively and metabolically and these costs appear to increase from early to late adulthood. By the time they have reached old age, individuals have acquired a behavioral repertoire that is likely to match the regularities and affordances of the environments they live in. The tendency of older adults, both automatic and deliberate, to outsource control to the environment may be inefficient at times, but cost-effective in the long run if the cuing structure of the environment corresponds to their goals and needs. Engineers, psychologists, and aging individuals themselves need to keep this in mind as they design and use adaptive technology in the pursuit of successful aging.