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Memory and Aging

Tomorrow's Research

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The question that often surfaces in reviewing the process related to long-term memory is whether it is more difficult for adults as they age to get information into the system (to encode it) or to get it out (to retrieve it). The response to this question appears to be both.


The posting below looks at changes in both working (short-term) memory and long-term memory as we age.  It is from Chapter 15 – Memory, Cognition, and the Brain, in the book Learning in Adulthood – A Comprehensive Guide, by Sharan B. Merriam, Rosemary S. Caffarella, and Lisa M. Baumgartner. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2007 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.




Rick Reis

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Tomorrows Research

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Memory and Aging

A great deal of research from the information processing framework has been conducted on the topic of memory and aging. The general consensus from that work is that certain memory functions do decline with age. Nevertheless, a number of authors have cautioned that because of methodological considerations and the variables being studied, this work must be interpreted with care. The great majority of it has focused on comparing young adults (usually college students) with older adults by using cross-sectional designs. These two factors combined make it difficult to generalize across age groups because of subject and cohort bias. Subject bias comes from using people who do not necessarily represent the general population (such as college students versus the broad population of young adults). Cohort bias or effect “is any difference between groups of adults of varying ages that is due not to any maturation or developmental process, but simply to the fact that the different age groups have grown up under different historical and cultural circumstances” (Bee & Bjorklund, 2004, p. 10). In addition, although the focus of the research is memory and aging, some of the authors of these studies do not define older adult, not even in terms of age ranges (Naveh-Benjamin, Hussain, Guez, & Bar-On, 2003; Rodgers & Fisk, 2001). Rodgers and Fisk, for example, provide a very thorough review and critique of the literature on understanding how age may affect the role of attention in older adults. However, except for one of many studies included in their review, they neither describe nor critique the study participants. What is especially interesting, but also ironic, is that in that particular study the range of the older adult group was from fifty to eighty. Moreover, most of this research has been conducted primarily in laboratory settings using memory tasks and activities, such as repeating back nonsense words and lists of random numbers. The primary criticism leveled against this type of research on memory is that these tasks and skills are generally artificial and taken out of the context of everyday life. A response to this criticism in recent years has been to design “ecologically valid” research that takes into account the everyday learning demands of adults (Anderson, 2005; Hoyer & Roodin, 2003; Langer, 1997; Rodgers & Fisk, 2001). With these limitations in mind, we offer a summary of this research on memory in adulthood.

Sensory and Working Memory

In general, few clearly defined changes have been found in sensory memory as people age. Because there are fairly major changes with age in both vision and hearing, one would expect to see these changes reflected in sensory memory. If you do not hear someone’s name in an introduction, for example, there is no way it can be registered for recall later. However, it is often difficult with testing procedures to distinguish between age-related physiological decline in the senses themselves, especially hearing, and actual decrements in the process of sensory memory.

Working memory, in contrast, is more problematic as we age, especially “if people are asked to do anything with the information they are holding in short-term memory – to rearrange it, or recall it in some order other than the one in which it was given, or repeat back only the words of a particular type” (Bee & Bjorklund, 2004, p. 143). Bee and Bjorklund suggest three reasons for a decline in working memory. One possibility is that older adults “don’t have the mental energy or attentional resources that younger people do and their short-term memory system becomes overloaded as tasks become more complex” (p. 143). A second possibility is that older adults do not enjoy the same strategies for dealing with working memory tasks as do younger people. The third commonly cited reason for this decline in working memory is that older adults appear to process materials more slowly, especially ones that are more complex in nature. One of the explanations for this slowing of the processing of information seems to be the “older adults’ capacity to simultaneously perform a cognitive task while trying to remember some of the information from a later memory task” (Smith, 1996, p. 241). In other words, it appears to be more difficult for older adults to both respond immediately to whatever stimulus triggered working memory and store pertinent information in long-term memory. Finally, older adults are less likely to even attempt to deal with “irrelevant and confusing information” (Bee & Bjorklund, 2004, p. 143).

Long-Term Memory

As with working memory, age deficits are also more commonly found in long-term memory. Three major differences have surfaced in long-term memory for older versus younger learners: changes in the encoding or acquisition of material, the retrieval of information, and the speed of processing. Few changes have been noted in the storage or retention capacity of long-term memory over the life span.

The question that often surfaces in reviewing the process related to long-term memory is whether it is more difficult for adults as they age to get information into the system (to encode it) or to get it out (to retrieve it). The response to this question appears to be both. It is not yet clear which part of the process creates more difficulty (Bee & Bjorklund, 2005; Ormrod, 1999). Encoding problems are most often associated with the organization of information. Specifically, older adults appear to be less efficient at organizing new material. Possible explanations of why organization is a problem relate to the amount and type of prior knowledge they already possess. While it is clear that the more we can relate new information to already stored information, the better we will remember it, it may also be that “storage of new information sometimes affects previously learned information. … Learners sometimes distort new material to fit their existing beliefs. Yet in other situations, a new piece of information may help learners recognize that something they stored earlier is inaccurate or that two previously learned pieces of information are related in a way they have not previously recognized” (Ormrod, 1999, p. 228). Further, information that is so at odds with a person’s belief system may be ignored. In other words, this type of information may never enter long-term memory because it is incompatible with what the person already knows.

On the retrieval side, changes are most often noted in the recall versus recognition of information. In tests of recall, for example, major differences have been demonstrated for older and younger people, whereas in recognition activities, the differences are small or nonexistent, although the retrieval time may be slower. However, if older adults “are given some type of environmental support such as strategy instructions at encoding or cues at retrieval (or both), their recall performances increase and approach the levels of the younger adults’ recall ability” (Bee & Bjorklund, 2004, p. 143; italics in original). Another aspect of retrieval that is often taken as a given is that older persons can retrieve “ancient memories” better than younger people, along with the accompanying myth that older people can clearly remember events in their distant past but have trouble recalling recent events. Rather, it appears that this reversal of memory strengths – remote memories are stronger than recent memories – may be a natural phenomenon that occurs at all ages, not just with older people. Further, we all “possess varying amounts of knowledge in selected domains of work, sports, hobbies, music, and other areas. Access to such knowledge is unaffected by aging. Individuals maintain their ability to use well-learned knowledge, strategies, and skills throughout middle age and into old age (Rybash, Hoyer, & Roodin, 1986). Tests of factual knowledge (e.g., vocabulary or news events) typically show no decline from young adulthood to old age (Hoyer & Touron, 2002)” (Hoyer & Roodin, p. 295).

In summary, in relation to long-term memory it appears that older adults may not acquire or retrieve information as well as do younger adults, nor organize information as effectively. This line of research may have limited generalizability because of the research designs, the subjects, the memory activities tested, and the separation of the research from the real world of the adult learner.

Memory in Context

In response to some of the criticisms of memory research just cited, a different approach has been taken by placing memory tasks in the context of everyday adult lives, called functional memory by some researchers. This strand of research, which fosters what has been ecological validity, has received little attention, primarily because it is affected by so many different variables and is still considered controversial by some researchers. The term ecological validity assumes that the tasks being studied are meaningful to the person and accurately reflect real-life adult experiences. These studies use a variety of memory tests, from “memory for text” formats, which include reviews of sentences, paragraphs, and stories versus single words and symbols, to memory skills for everyday activities, such as keeping appointments and remembering what items to buy at the grocery store (Anderson, 2005; Knopf, 1995; Ormrod, 1999). These studies also address some of the other concerns raised by scholars of the contextual approach, such as the person’s needs and motivation, the specificity of the task, and situational variables. Other factors that might affect differences in memory are the person’s “attitudes, interests, health status, intellectual abilities, and style of learning” (Hoyer & Roodin, 2003, p. 302). However, in sum, the extent to which noncognitive factors such as health and level of education affect age and memory is not as clear; the effect of cognitive factors such as speed of processing have more research support (Hoyer & Roodin, 2003).

Fostering Memory Capacity and Skills

The assumption underlying the research on memory is that memory capacity and skills form one of the keys to how adults learn. Formal memory training, the most structured approach to building memory skills, has been shown to be useful in helping older adults cope with memory deficits (Bee & Bjorklund, 2004; Hoyer & Roodin, 2003). This training has most often focused on the teaching of encoding strategies, such as practicing rehearsal information or using mnemonics (devices for helping people improve their memory; Carney & Levine, 1998).

Adult educators have suggested ways to integrate training in memory skills into formal learning programs for adults: providing both verbal and written cues, such as advance organizers and overheads, when introducing new material to learners; using mnemonics and rehearsal strategies; and giving opportunities to apply the new material as soon after the presentation as possible. Adults learning on their own may also find it helpful to use memory aids in their learning activities. These can come in many forms, from structured checklists for learning a new skill to personal note taking on items of interest. Bee and Bjorklund (2004) report on a study by Burack and Lachkman (1996) that there were no significant differences between young and older adults for those who made lists in word recognition and recall tests. Interestingly, participants who were told they could use their lists, but were “actually not allowed to use them” benefited as much as subjects who made lists and used them – “suggesting that the activity of list making improves memory even when the list is not available at recall” (Bee & Bjorklund, 2004, p. 145).

Cognitive psychologists, in addition to their work on memory and aging, have provided us with a number of other important concepts related to learning in adulthood. Three of those concepts – knowledge structures, the role of prior knowledge and experience, and learning and cognitive styles – are discussed next in the chapter.


Anderson, J.R. (2005). Cognitive psychology and its implications (6th ed.). New York: Freeman.

Bee, H.L., & Bjorklund, B.R. (2004). The journey of adulthood (5th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Burack, O.R., & Lachkman, M.E. (1996). The effects of list-making on recall in young and elderly adults. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 51(4), 226-233.

Carney, R.N., & Levine, J.R. (1998). Mnemonic strategies for adult learners. In M.C. Smith & T. Poucot (Eds.), Adult learning and development: Perspectives from educational psychology (pp. 159-175). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Hoyer, W.J. & Roodin, P.A. (2003). Adult development and aging (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Knopf, M. (1995). Memory for action events: Structure and development in adulthood. In F.E. Weinert & W. Schneider (Eds.), Memory performance and competencies: Issues in growth and development (pp. 127-138). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Langer, E.J. (1997). The power of mindful learning. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Naveh-Benjamin, M., Hussain, Z., Guez, J., & Bar-On, M. (2003). Adult age differences in episodic memory: Further support for an associative-deficit hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition, 29(5), 826-837.

Ormrod, J.E. (1999). Human learning (3rd ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill.

Rodgers, W.A., & Fisk, A.D., (2001). Understanding the role of attention in cognition and aging research. In J.E. Birren & K.W. Schaie (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of aging (5th ed., pp. 267-287). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Smith, A.D. (1996). Memory. In J.E. Birren & K.W. Schaie (Eds.), Handbook of the psychology of aging (4th ed. pp. 236-250). Orland