The aim of this study is to broaden our understanding of the construction and early decline of spatial mental representations in route learning, considering the extent to which spatial ability and age-related differences in environment learning interact. The experiment examines spatial mental representation derived from taking a realistic route acquired using virtual environment and compares individuals different in age but with similar spatial ability. A sample of 34 young (20-30 years) and 30 middle-aged (50-60 years) females with good mental rotation ability were chosen. Participants learned a complex route through its presentation in a virtual environment and then performed a series of tasks (landmark recognition, location of landmarks and verification of spatial relations). Results show that the two participant age groups had similar performance in landmark recognition task and in verification of sentences describing direct spatial relations; instead, the middle-aged group showed a poorer performance than younger in their ability to locate landmarks and to judge the truth of indirect spatial sentences. These results first suggest that spatial abilities have to be seriously considered to avoid any confusion with age, as age-related differences are attenuated when individuals are different in age but similar in spatial ability. Second they confirm a specific difficulty of older participants to handle spatial information in a global configuration.
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