It's not easy being old. Vitality and verve give way to creaky bones, hearing loss, and physical infirmity. Perhaps even more disturbing, intellectual vigor tumbles from its peak. Memories, like ungrateful children, visit infrequently and lie when they show up. Retention of familiar names and faces hits the skids, sparking anxious thoughts about Alzheimer's disease.
This is one popular image of old age in Western cultures. What's more, scientific research generally supports the notion that mental aging does not occur gracefully. After about age 65, people score lower on all sorts of tests that tap into thinking skills. Healthy aging, devoid of any brain illnesses, takes a toll on memory for stories, pictures, faces, activities, locations, telephone numbers, travel routes, and grocery lists, according to studies published in the past 5 years. Reasoning, spatial skills, and the ability to direct and focus attention, at least as measured for individuals performing experimental tasks, also suffer.
That's not the case in psychologist Roger A. Dixon's laboratory at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. There, men and women in their late 60s--or even in their late 80s--remember as much as or more than young adults when asked to recall a passage that they had just read. These old people, some of whom were preschoolers during World War 1, typically give more entertaining, richer accounts of the material than fresh-faced folks who were born in the era of Watergate hearings and disco music.
Dixon offers elderly volunteers no brain-boosting drugs or clever strategies for pumping up memory. He greases recall with a common social lubricant--collaboration.
When allowed to work together, couples married for 40 years or more retrieve as much information from memory as young married couples or young individuals. Elderly partners, whom Dixon regards as experts in the art of collaboration, offer the most insights and commentary about passages, while making the fewest errors in recall.
Unlike young spouses, old couples rapidly formulate strategies for remembering information. Pairs of elderly strangers begin to lay the groundwork for mutual strategies by establishing a friendly, supportive atmosphere, he adds.
In essence, older people try to compensate for declining individual memory by extracting more memory out of social interactions, Dixon proposes. Those with the most collaborative experience and skill make up the most ground.
"Individual performance on laboratory tasks may greatly underestimate the memory abilities of older people in their everyday lives," Dixon contends.
Dixon's findings appear amid growing scientific skepticism that memory inevitably fades with the passing years. Only about one in three healthy elderly persons experiences difficulty in remembering directions, telephone numbers, and other information that comes to mind through a conscious effort, according to neuropsychologist Marilyn S. Albert of Massachusetts General Hospital in Charlestown.
As people age, it generally takes them longer to learn new information and to recall it later on. Yet elderly individuals do not forget information any faster than young adults and, when granted enough time, frequently generate memories of comparable accuracy, Albert notes.
On average, 70-year-olds who listen to someone read a short story remember less about it immediately afterward than 25-year-olds do. After a 20-minute delay, both groups remember just as much as they did before.
A number of researchers have noted that disadvantages in recall do not keep healthy older adults from excelling at all sorts of complex mental tasks in their professional and leisure pursuits. In some cases, intensive practice of a complex skill, such as professional-level piano playing, keeps performance sharp well into old age (SN: 12/21&28/96, p. 388).
Dixon assumes that pragmatic know-how increases throughout life, whereas glitches increasingly occur in what he regards as mechanical abilities, such as the swiftness with which one can marshal mental responses to a problem. …