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Front Psychol. 2015 Jul 15;6:999. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00999. eCollection 2015.

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

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Department of Psychology, University of Hull Hull, UK.
School of Psychological Sciences and Health, University of Strathclyde Glasgow, UK.


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.


aging; approximate number system; exact number system; non-symbolic numerical processing; number sense; numerical cognition; quantity discrimination; symbolic numerical processing

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