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One of the key concerns of older adults is experiencing memory loss, especially as it is one of the hallmark symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease. However, memory loss is qualitatively different in normal aging than it is in Alzheimer's Disease.
Memory Decline Seen in Normal Aging
The ability to encode new memories of events or facts and working memory show decline in both cross-sectional and longitudinal studies. These deficits may be related to impairments seen in the ability to refresh recently processed information. In addition, even when equated in memory for a particular item or fact, older adults tend to be worse at remembering the source of their information, a deficit that may be related to declines in the ability to bind information together in memory.
Domains of Memory Mostly Spared in Normal Aging
In contrast, implicit, or procedural memory typically shows no decline with age and semantic knowledge, such as vocabulary, actually improves somewhat with age. In addition, the enhancement seen in memory for emotional events is also maintained with age.
Qualitative Changes in Memory Processing with Age
Most research on memory and aging has focused on how older adults perform less well at a particular memory task. However, recently researchers have also discovered that simply saying that older adults are doing the same thing, only less of it, is not always accurate. In some cases, older adults seem to be using different strategies than younger adults. For example, brain imaging studies have revealed that older adults are more likely to use both hemispheres when completing memory tasks than younger adults. In addition, older adults often show a positivity effect when remembering information, which seems to be a result of the increased focus on regulating emotion seen with age.
- Cabeza, R. (2002). Hemispheric asymmetry reduction in older adults: The HAROLD model. Psychology and Aging, 17, 85-100. PDF
- Fleischman, D.A., Wilson, R.S., Gabrieli, J.D.E., Bienias, J.L., Bennett, D.A. (2004). A longitudinal study of implicit and explicit memory in old persons. Psychology and Aging, 19, 617-625. Abstract
- Hedden, T., & Gabrieli, J.D.E. (2004). Insights into the ageing mind: A view from cognitive neuroscience. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5, 87-97. PDF
- Johnson, M.K., Hashtroudi, S., & Lindsay, D.S. (1993). Source monitoring. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 3-28. PDF
- Johnson, M.K., Reeder, J.A., Raye, C.L., & Mitchell, K.J. (2002). Second thoughts versus second looks: An age-related deficit in selectively refreshing just-active information. Psychological Science, 13, 64-67. PDF
- Mather, M., & Carstensen, L. L. (2005). Aging and motivated cognition: The positivity effect in attention and memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 496-502. PDF
- Mitchell, K.J., Johnson, M.K., Raye, C.L., Mather, M., & D'Esposito, M. (2000). Aging and reflective processes of working memory: Binding and test load deficits. Psychology and Aging, 15, 527-541. PDF
- Verhaeghen, P. (2003). Aging and vocabulary scores: A meta-analysis. Psychology and Aging, 18, 332-339. Abstract
- Memory-related resources from the National Institutes of Health
- What is normal memory loss with aging
- Resources to keep your memory sharp from the AARP
- Recent findings about aging and emotional memory
- Laboratory for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease Research - Prof. Dr. Christian Haass
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