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Aging and the number sense: preserved basic non-symbolic numerical processing and enhanced basic symbolic processing

Norris, Jade E.; McGeown, William J.; Guerrini, Chiara; Castronovo, Julie


Jade E. Norris

William J. McGeown


© 2015 Norris, McGeown, Guerrini and Castronovo. Aging often leads to general cognitive decline in domains such as memory and attention. The effect of aging on numerical cognition, particularly on foundational numerical skills known as the number sense, is not well-known. Early research focused on the effect of aging on arithmetic. Recent studies have begun to investigate the impact of healthy aging on basic numerical skills, but focused on non-symbolic quantity discrimination alone. Moreover, contradictory findings have emerged. The current study aimed to further investigate the impact of aging on basic non-symbolic and symbolic numerical skills. A group of 25 younger (18–25) and 25 older adults (60–77) participated in non-symbolic and symbolic numerical comparison tasks. Mathematical and spelling abilities were also measured. Results showed that aging had no effect on foundational non-symbolic numerical skills, as both groups performed similarly [RTs, accuracy and Weber fractions (w)]. All participants showed decreased non-symbolic acuity (accuracy and w) in trials requiring inhibition. However, aging appears to be associated with a greater decline in discrimination speed in such trials. Furthermore, aging seems to have a positive impact on mathematical ability and basic symbolic numerical processing, as older participants attained significantly higher mathematical achievement scores, and performed significantly better on the symbolic comparison task than younger participants. The findings suggest that aging and its lifetime exposure to numbers may lead to better mathematical achievement and stronger basic symbolic numerical skills. Our results further support the observation that basic non-symbolic numerical skills are resilient to aging, but that aging may exacerbate poorer performance on trials requiring inhibitory processes. These findings lend further support to the notion that preserved basic numerical skills in aging may reflect the preservation of an innate, primitive, and embedded number sense.


Norris, J. E., McGeown, W. J., Guerrini, C., & Castronovo, J. (2015). Aging and the number sense: preserved basic non-symbolic numerical processing and enhanced basic symbolic processing. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1-13.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Jul 2, 2015
Online Publication Date Jul 15, 2015
Publication Date Jun 15, 2015
Deposit Date Jan 13, 2016
Publicly Available Date Nov 23, 2017
Journal Frontiers in Psychology
Electronic ISSN 1664-1078
Publisher Frontiers Media
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 6
Article Number ARTN 999
Pages 1-13
Keywords Aging, Numerical cognition, Number sense, Approximate number system, Exact number system, Non-symbolic numerical processing, Symbolic numerical processing, Quantity discrimination
Public URL
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Additional Information Copy of article 999 published in: Frontiers in psychology, 2015, v.6 This Document is Protected by copyright and was first published by Frontiers. All rights reserved. it is reproduced with permission.


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Copyright Statement
© 2015 Norris, McGeown, Guerrini and Castronovo. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

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