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How your memory declines as you get older

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The first-ever conference on cognitive science, the University of Toronto Inter-disciplinary Symposium on the Mind (UTism), was held at UC last Friday and Saturday. Lectures were brief, 30 minutes long followed by question and answer periods. Together the speakers covered many of the facets of cognitive science, a discipline that draws from many fields including linguistics, philosophy, psychology, and computer science. Included among the presenters was Dr. Fergus Craik, cognitive psychologist and senior scientist at The Rotman Research Institute.

Dr. Craik modeled his talk “Memory-Downhill All the Way?” on a bad news, good news paradigm. Through his research, Dr. Craik aims to discover whether the general perception that memory declines with age holds true. His take-home message is that as we age, memory undergoes a decline differential-that is, some types of memory decline substantially while others do not.

Dr. Craik identified two major problems of declining memory: (1) difficulty remembering source and context (the where, when, what of an event), and (2) difficulty with retrieval in general. He believes these two might reflect a common problem of accessing details from an aging memory system. “There may be some validity to the notion of development in reverse…that is, we lose the particulars but keep the general framework.”

He devised an experiment involving young subjects (late teens/early 20s) and senior ones (60-70 year-olds). He surmised that with age, less “attentional resources” are available with which to process and integrate information. His research design included three tasks that were meant to measure memory capacity: word retrieval, divided attention resources, and name/face retrieval. Dr. Craik also compared performance with and without memory-enhancing strategies such as pairing related or similar words.

Results were mixed. As expected, younger subjects performed better in the word pair retrieval task than older subjects. For the visual tracking task, which measured word pairing while subjects visually chased a moving light target, they also outperformed the older folk. Yet there existed the same differences in results between younger and older subjects trained with strategies, which surprised the researchers. In other words, memory aids helped both age groups, but not more among the young, as expected. Results from the third task surprised them as well: although face recognition declined substantially with age, object recognition did not.

What does this mean for us as the years slip by? Dr. Craik reiterated the ‘bad news, good news’ differential of aging memory. Secondary memory, including episodic (event-related) and procedural (how to do things) memory, declines with age. But primary memory, which includes short-term and long-term memory, declines very little, especially when supported by memory aid strategies.