Memory and Aging

By Cavanaugh, John C. | National Forum, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Memory and Aging


Cavanaugh, John C., National Forum


Growing older is difficult on a personal level for many people. In part, the concern and anxiety people feel result from societal attitudes that favor youth, especially for women. However, such feelings also result from misconceptions about what aging entails on a personal level, which in turn result from a lack of accurate information about the psychological aspects of aging.

One area in which personal concerns are especially prominent is memory. Perhaps no other psychological criterion is used more to check how well we are functioning. Likewise, no other cognitive skill is as pervasive in everything we do, from remembering how to brush our teeth in the morning to remembering to set the alarm when we go to bed at night.

In this article, I will summarize briefly the research literature on memory and aging. In particular, I will focus on the complex processes we use to acquire, store, and remember information, the role of personal beliefs about memory and memory change, and the place of memory in clinical testing. Readers interested in learning more about cognitive processes and aging should consult the book Perspectives on Cognitive Changes in Adulthood and Late Life edited by Blanchard-Fields and Hess (McGraw-Hill [1996]). Of course, memory is but one aspect of the broader arena of psychological changes with age; readers wishing to learn more may wish to consult my book Adult Development and Aging (3rd ed., Brooks/Cole [1997]).

PROCESSING AND REMEMBERING INFORMATION

One of the most commonly held beliefs about aging is that memory inevitably declines. Unfortunately, this view, though somewhat correct, is much too simplistic. The reason is that getting information into our heads in such a way that we can remember it on demand later is the result of a series of complex processes: sensory memory, attention, working memory, short-term memos, and long-term memory. Psychologists who study these processes in the context of aging have discovered that some of them change dramatically with age, whereas others seem to change very little.

Sensory memory is the earliest step in information processing, the step in which incoming information is first registered. Although very large amounts of information can be taken in at this step, it is lost quickly unless we pay attention to it. For instance, try drawing both sides of a U.S. quarter; even though we see these coins every day, and the information is registered, because most of us do not pay enough attention, we are not very good at this task. Researchers have shown that the amount of visual information we can handle at one time declines with age, as does the speed with which people can identify target information within this information.

Attention is an extremely important aspect of information processing; indeed, without it, the odds of remembering a specific piece of information drop dramatically. Psychologists study attention by focusing on three major types: selective attention, divided attention, and sustained attention. Selective attention entails being able to pick out a particular target or piece of information from a larger display (for example, finding all the e's on this page or the cars that may be likely to pull out in front of you in a busy intersection). As people grow older, the speed with which they can accomplish such tasks slows down a great deal - their reaction times slow considerably, sometimes by a factor of 100 percent, depending on the task. Reaction-time slowing is especially dramatic when the information presented and the necessary response are complex, which is typically the case when driving a car. Only when people know exactly where to look ahead of time (such as expert birdwatchers knowing where in a tree a tufted titmouse is most likely to be) are these reaction time differences not as great. Older adults are also much less able than younger ones to do two effortful things at the same time (such as listen to a physician's report and write down notes simultaneously) unless they have had substantial amounts of practice in the exact tasks they have to perform together. …

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