A surprising twist on memory loss and aging

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

older younger
Long-term memory is mostly unchanged in older people.

When I think about growing old, I imagine myself forgetting basic information like my name or birthday. After all, memory diseases like Alzheimer’s are more common in individuals over 65 years old, so it’s not totally unreasonable to imagine, right? Well, according to research from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, I am being unreasonable, because the memory of elderly people is surprisingly consistent!

Now, what exactly are memories and how do they stay in my head? Well, there are billions of cells in our brains called neurons, which connect to one another. Learning something new strengthens these connections, thus creating a stored memory. Okay, so if we’re just filled to the brim with how words are spelled, the names of our friends, and a billion other tiny facts, how come we’re not rolling around the ground overwhelmed by all the information hitting us at once! Can you imagine trying to take a test, while all the smallest details locked away in your brain are competing for attention at the same time? It would be just about impossible to focus! That’s why we have a “working memory” that lets us access exactly which memories we need to complete a certain activity, without all the others taking the stage.

The researchers tested this working memory in 100 adults in their 20s and 100 adults between the ages of 65 and 80. Tests included memorizing words and completing math problems. The older generation held their own and showed surprising consistency, despite the younger people outperforming them. Dr. Carol Holland, the director of a research center focused on aging at the University of Aston, explains, “Long-term memory doesn’t change in normal old age, we are just as good at remembering poetry learned as a child.” There is one clear disadvantage for the elderly, though, because Holland says, “Learning new things – that’s where differences start to show.”

outdoor lunch
We sometimes overemphasize the role of aging in forgetting. Children forget things all the time!

These differences, according to researcher Florian Schmiedek, aren’t too significant. He pointed out that “the variability is not as large as one might expect. It’s more of a moment-to-moment fluctuation in performance that often creates the impression that we have good and bad days.” If that’s the case, though, why is it that older people blame  their age when they forget something?

According to Dr. Holland, “An older person might attribute losing their keys to just having celebrated their 70th birthday when really they might have always had problems with forgetting where they’ve put things.” In other words, older people blame their age when they forget information, when in reality, they may have always been a little forgetful! If anything, it’s this doubt that leads the elderly to use simple memory techniques.

“Older people tend to adopt strategies which help them cope with any lapses in memory,” said Holland. “A grandmother who has a poor memory never forgets her granddaughter’s birthday because she uses a calendar or notebook as a reminder.”

The researchers were surprised with the results of these tests and want to continue researching memory, only next time on how smartphones affect the memories of kids!

Images courtesy of SalFalko on Flickr.