We call it a “senior moment” – when we forget where we parked the car or left the keys. These moments of forgetfulness are so called because they tend to become more frequent with age. But all is not lost: New research suggests that senior moments have a lot to do with how we approach remembering something, rather than simply being a function of memory capabilities. That’s good news for aging adults, as it means that memory deficits are not intractable.
“Memory can be improved across all age groups, simply by making sure to pay more attention to what you want to remember,” says Michael Dulas of Georgia Tech. It seems obvious, but attention is an often-overlooked factor in memory and aging, with the focus instead on loss of brain functionality.
Driving the new study, just published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, was Dulas’ own positive outlook on aging: “I’m of the mind that older adults may simply do what is most efficient and not necessarily what is most accurate,” he explains.
To test this optimistic view, Dulas, with his adviser Audrey Duarte, designed an experiment to test “source memory” in both young and older adults. Source memory is the ability to remember specific details about when you’ve encountered something before – for example, remembering where you parked your car in a store parking lot. “While you can easily remember what your car looks like – item memory – it may be much harder to remember specifically where you parked this trip – source memory,” Dulas says.
This source memory appears to decline with age to a greater extent than item memory. Past neuroimaging research has suggested that declines in the function of the lateral prefrontal cortex influence source memory. Dulas and Duarte wanted to see whether these prefrontal declines underlie older adults’ inability to engage in the attentional and evaluation processes that are necessary for remembering source information, or whether older adults are capable of engaging in these processes but simply do so less often.
In their study, participants (one group ages 18–29 and one group ages 60-73)viewed pictures of objects, some of which appeared in a color that was probable for that object, say a red apple, and some of which appeared in a color that was not probable for that object, say a blue horse. The researchers then asked participants whether they had seen each object before (item memory) and then whether the object was now shown in the same or different color than it was previously (source memory). During the tasks, the researchers performed fMRI scanning on the participants.
By asking the participants to determine if the object color was plausible, the researchers were directing their attention: “Participants were forced to think about the association between the object and its color in relation to the object,” Dulas says. “This was compared to other objects where we simply asked if the object was bigger than a shoebox,” and participants thus did not need to attend to the color.
Both age groups showed improvements in source memory with the directed attention. Older adults, however, still showed memory deficits compared to the younger participants.
While the patterns of performance and brain activity were very similar between the younger and older groups, the main difference was in how the participants approached the task. The imaging evidence suggests that older adults were engaging in internally focused processing, such as thinking about whether they liked the images. “This internally focused processing may have come at the cost of encoding external details, such as object-color associations,” Dulas says.
Still, Dulas says that the results offer reassuring news to all of us a we age: “Our results showed that, when properly supported, older adults could engage in strategic retrieval processing similarly to the young, despite their persistent source memory impairments,” he says. “This suggests that healthy aging may not result in intractable deficits in strategic processing mediated by the lateral prefrontal cortex.”
So if you are at a party this summer and want to remember someone’s name, try engaging in a strategy that makes you think about the name in more depth. Says Dulas: “The good news for aging is that this works for all age groups; older adults may just need a little extra support to reach the level of performance of the young.” Dulas and his colleagues are now working to identify just which strategies will work best for older adults to improve memory in their daily lives.
-Lisa M.P. Munoz