Cognitive Neuroscience of Aging: Linking Cognitive and Cerebral Aging

By Roberto Cabeza; Lars Nyberg et al. | Go to book overview

8
The Cognitive Neuroscience
of Working Memory and Aging

Patricia A. Reuter-Lorenz Ching-Yune C. Sylvester

Since its introduction in the 1970s, the concept of working memory has been a catalyst for research (Baddeley & Hitch, 1974). Working memory is a powerful explanatory construct that accords with our subjective experience: Introspection reveals a kind of mental workspace in which our current thoughts (information) can be maintained (rehearsed) in the fore. We sense that we accomplish this with inner speech (the phonological loop) or mental images (the visuospatial sketchpad). We can hold in mind this limited amount of information and discard it once our goal is completed (short-term memory). We can also reorganize, sort through, or otherwise work with the briefly retained information (executive processes). However, as with most introspective evidence, these experiences of “working memory” hint at, but do little to reveal, its inner workings and complex structure.

Several decades of behavioral and neuroscience research have provided these insights. Indeed, the construct of working memory has become such a mainstay of cognitive psychology that it figures prominently in major theories of cognition (e.g., Anderson, 1983; Schneider, 1993; D. E. Meyer & Kieras, 1997; Newell, 1990) and has been closely linked to language comprehension, reasoning and problem solving, and even the hallowed intelligence factor g (Spearman, 1927; Daneman & Carpenter, 1980; Turner & Engle, 1989; Engle et al., 1999). Specifically, research has documented that individual differences in the fortitude, or capacity, of working memory are strongly related to variations in performance on measures such as the Verbal Scholastic Aptitude Test, the Tower of Hanoi, and Ravens Progressive Matrices (Carpenter, Just, & Shell, 1990; see Jonides, 1995, for a review). It should not be surprising, then, that changes in working memory during the course of normal aging are a pivotal determinant of more general age-related declines in cognitive performance (Salthouse, 1995; Park et al., 2002).

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