Aging and Memory

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Cognitive Development in Adulthood

Aging and Memory

How does memory change with age?

Among the most intriguing developmental psychology questions is whether adult cognitive abilities, such as memory, intelligence, and creativity, parallel the gradually accelerating decline of physical abilities.

As we age, we remember some things well. Looking back in later life, adults asked to recall the one or two most important events over the last half-century tend to name events from their teens or twenties (Conway et al., 2005; Rubin et al., 1998). They also display this “reminiscence bump” when asked to name their all-time favorite music, movies, and athletes (Janssen et al., 2011). Whatever people experience around this time of life—the Vietnam War, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the election of the first Black U.S. president—becomes pivotal (Pillemer, 1998; Schuman & Scott, 1989). Our teens and twenties hold so many memorable “firsts”—first kiss, first job, first day at college or university, first meeting in-laws.

The point to remember If the information is meaningful, older people’s rich web of existing knowledge will help them to hold it.

Early adulthood is indeed a peak time for some types of learning and remembering. In one test of recall, people watched video clips as 14 strangers said their names, using a common format: “Hi, I’m Larry” (Crook & West, 1990). Then those strangers reappeared and gave additional details. For example, they said, “I’m from Philadelphia,” providing more visual and voice cues for remembering the person’s name. As Figure 4 shows, after a second and third replay of the introductions, everyone remembered more names, but younger adults consistently surpassed older adults. How well older people remember depends in part on the task. In another experiment, when asked to recognize 24 words they had earlier tried to memorize, people showed only a minimal decline in memory. When asked to recall that information without clues, however, the decline was greater (Figure 5).

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Figure 4

Tests of Recall

Chart showing the percentage of names recalled after one, two, and three introductions at various ages. People who received three introductions recalled the most names, but all three groups steadily declined as they grew older.

Recalling new names introduced once, twice, or three times is easier for younger adults than for older ones. (Data from Crook & West, 1990.)

Figure 5

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Recall and Recognition in Adulthood

This chart shows that the number of words recognized is stable with age, but the number of words recalled declines with age.

In this experiment, the ability to recall new information declined during early and middle adulthood, but the ability to recognize new information did not. (Data from Schonfield &

Robertson, 1966.)

In our capacity to learn and remember, as in other areas of development, we show individual differences. Younger adults vary in their abilities to learn and remember, but 70-year-olds vary much more. “Differences between the most and least able 70-year- olds become much greater than between the most and least able 50-year-olds,” reports Oxford researcher Patrick Rabbitt (2006). Some 70-year-olds perform below nearly all 20-year-olds; other 70-year-olds match or outdo the average 20-year-old.

No matter how quick or slow we are, remembering seems also to depend on the type of information we are trying to retrieve. If the information is meaningless—nonsense syllables or unimportant events—then the older we are, the more errors we are likely to make. If the information is meaningful, older people’s rich web of existing knowledge will help them to hold it. But they may take longer than younger adults to produce the words and things they know. Older adults also more often experience tip-of-the-tongue memories (Ossher et al., 2012). Quick-thinking game show winners are usually young or middle-aged adults (Burke & Shafto, 2004).

Multiple-Choice Question

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A 20-year-old is MOST likely to outperform a 70-year-old on which of the following tasks?

recognizing previously presented names of fruits and vegetables recalling memorable personal experiences recalling previously presented nonsense syllables recognizing previously presented foreign-language words

Correct. The ability to recall nonsense syllables declines with age.

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Sustaining Mental Abilities

Psychologists who study the aging mind debate whether “brain fitness” computer training programs can build mental muscles and stave off cognitive decline. Our brains remain plastic throughout life (Gutchess, 2014). So, can exercising our brains on a “cognitive treadmill”—with memory, visual tracking, and problem-solving exercises— avert losing our minds? “At every point in life, the brain’s natural plasticity gives us the ability to improve…function,” said one neuroscientist-entrepreneur (Merzenich, 2007). One 5-year study of nearly 3000 people found that 10 one-hour cognitive training sessions, with follow-up booster sessions, led to improved cognitive scores on tests related to their training (Boron et al., 2007; Willis et al., 2006). Other studies with children and adults also found that brain-training exercises can sharpen the mind (Anguera et al., 2013; Jonides et al., 2012; Karr et al., 2014).

Based on such findings, some computer game makers are marketing daily brain- exercise programs for older adults. But other researchers, after reviewing all the available studies, advise caution (Melby-Lervåg & Hulme, 2013; Redick et al., 2013; Salthouse, 2010; Shipstead et al., 2012a,b). The available evidence, they argue, suggests that brain training can produce short-term gains, but mostly on the trained tasks and not for cognitive ability in general (Berkman et al., 2014; Harrison et al., 2013; Karbach & Verhaeghen, 2014). A British study of 11,430 people, who for 6 weeks either completed brain training activities or a control task, confirmed the limited benefits. Although the training improved the practiced skills, it did not boost overall cognitive fitness (Owen et al., 2010). “Play a video game and you’ll get better at that video game, and maybe at very similar video games,” observes researcher David Hambrick (2014), but not at driving a car or filling out your tax return.

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