Differential effects of aging on spatial abilities

Daniela E. Aguilar Ramirez, Jarrod Blinch, Kate Takeda, Jennifer L. Copeland, Claudia L.R. Gonzalez

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Visuospatial functions are particularly vulnerable to the aging process. Decline of these processes can seriously affect an individual’s functional independence and quality of life. Effectively assessing the spatial abilities of older adults is, therefore, crucial for identifying strategies to maintain cognitive functioning. The purpose of the present study was to use ecological tasks more comparable to activities of daily living to assess spatial ability in older adults. Three hands-on tasks (a visual search task, a low- and a high-mental rotation demand tasks) and a version of the well-known paper-based mental rotation of figures test (Shepard and Metzler, Science 171(3972):701–703, 1971) were given to 60–79-year-old female and male participants. The hands-on tasks required participants to locate, manipulate, and arrange real objects (i.e., toy bricks) in space. Age had a negative impact on visual search but not on mental rotation ability. Male participants outperformed females in the mental rotation tasks, but a trend for the opposite (better performance by females) was found for the visual search task. The results suggest that spatial abilities are not a monolithic construct and that sub-categories of this construct are affected by age and by sex differently. While visual search function is susceptible to decline during old age, mental rotation ability is not. In addition, unlike the paper-based test, the hands-on tasks were found to be age-appropriate with a feasible level of difficulty for all participants. The hands-on tasks may be more appealing as a tool to evaluate, maintain, and/or enhance spatial function in older adults.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1579-1588
Number of pages10
JournalExperimental brain research
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2022


  • Mental rotation
  • Sex differences
  • Spatial cognition
  • Spatial tasks
  • Visual search


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