Memory Changes in Older Adults

Psychologists who are studying the normal changes of aging found that "simple behavior changes can help people stay sharp for as long as possible, despite change in some aspects of memory.

Though researchers are still figuring out what happens to an aging but healthy brain, they can explain some regular changes.

Psychologists such as Fergus Craik, PhD, and Timothy Salthouse, PhD, are studying what’s going on, and are compiling their findings. They are also trying to improve on the methodology of this field of study.

To understand age-related changes in behavior, we look into the goings-on of our brain.

Changes in the brain

Our brain’s volume peaks in the early 20s and gradually goes downhill from here onwards.

By age 40, as we begin to notice little changes in our ability to remember say, new phone numbers, or to multi-task, several changes are also happening inside:

the cortex begins to shrink

neurons can also shrink or atrophy

extensiveness among neurons is significantly decreased (dendritic loss)

the normally aging but normal brain has lower blood flow and is less effective at getting new areas into operations.

Changes in behavior

All of these changes have an effect on behavior. The reduced blood flow in the brain affects the cortex the most. This results in a decline in verbal fluency (ability to find the words they want).

We also need to exert more effort at administrative functions like planning and organizing activities.

The second most affected area by the blood-flow drop in the brain is the parietal cortex which affects construction and visuomotor function.

Another affected brain area is the medial temporal area which impacts the ability to make new long-term memory and think flexibly.

Researchers refuted the model that people go into general mental decline as they get older. Using neuroimaging and increasingly sensitive tests, researchers are developing a "model of specific deficits" indicating "very different rates of decline and also vary widely among individuals."

Researchers also surmise that "middle-aged sensitivities" to memory loss may be worsened with being compared to a person’s "youthful performance," and that comparing a person’s performance to "healthy age-matched peers" may be more realistic.

Pattern of change

Psychologists gathering evidence supporting a consistent pattern of change.

The pattern, at least with regards to which memories decline the most, and which ones decline the least, goes this way:

Episodic, source, and flashbulb memory decline the most

Semantic, and procedural decline the least.

Researchers also say that "storage capacity" is not cause of the changes. How people "encode and retrieve" information appear to usher these changes. "Interference, such as distraction, blocks encoding more and slower processing may hurt retrieval, such as being able to remember names and dates" (Psychology Matters).

But even with these small changes, most older still appear to be able to gather new information and store them in long-term memory, and implicit learning seem virtually spared into old age.

Source: Psychology Matters