Aging and Memory

Memory declines with age but the story is not so simple.

Posted Mar 06, 2018

The earth is round. Snow falls in winter. Memory declines with age. Universal truths.

Most older adults report that their memory is not what it used to be. Indeed, there is reliable evidence that memory declines with age, even in persons who are in good health.   

Less well known is the type of memory that declines with age. Even less well known is that there is a kind of memory that improves with age.

The bad news first. Episodic memory decreases with age. This variety of memory pertains to “episodes” or events in your life. Memories for particular times, such as going out to dinner with friends, can escape you when you want to tell someone else the name of the restaurant. Episodic information can be particularly hard to recall on the spot but when prompted with a cue, the memory usually returns. This latter fact indicates that memory sometimes is not the core problem. Rather, it is recalling information—that is buried somewhere in your brain—when you want it. 

Episodic memory decline, while noticeable and annoying, is not cause for concern.  It is a normal part of aging.

Now the good news. Another type of memory—semantic memory—increases with age. Knowledge of general facts and information remains stable and even can increase in older adults. Older adults are wiser! Or at least they know more than younger persons.

Psychology and Aging, the premier journal in the field, recently published a special issue devoted to aging and memory. One of the articles indicated that older adult memory deficits are greatest when they are tested at “non-optimal” times of the day. Most older adults are self-identified morning persons and memory will be best at this time. 

Another study in the special issue of Psychology and Aging replicated a well-known stereotype threat phenomenon. When older adults are exposed to messages that might be threatening—such as “you are about to take a test to measure your memory”—they perform more poorly than when provided with non-threatening instructions. 

Thus, yes, memory declines with age. But the story is not so simple because there are a number of factors that can exaggerate or minimize age group differences in memory. Memory may be best in older adults when they are provided cues, are tested at their best time of day, and are in non-threatening circumstances. Plus, some types of memory—that is, for general information—increase with age.