Cognitive Psychology of Memory and Aging Research Paper

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‘As I get older, can I maintain or even improve my memory for names?’ Questions such as these motivate a strong practical interest in the relation of memory and aging. The diversity of practical issues related to memory problems is easily matched by the conceptual sophistication of memory-related taxonomies emerging from cognitive research (e.g., short-term or working memory vs. long-term memory, episodic vs. semantic memory, explicit vs. implicit memory). Indeed, the observation that age differences vary by the type of memory under consideration is invariably part of the empirical justification for these distinctions. Furthermore, in the field of cognitive aging a number of rival accounts have been put forward with the claim that age-related memory problems are foremost a consequence of a general weakening of cognitive processing efficiency which is traced conceptually to a decline in a hypothetical mental processing resource, a decline in the speed of processing, or a decline in inhibition of irrelevant information—to name but three prominent examples. Accordingly, this review of research on memory and aging will be structured under three superordinate questions: Do memory systems age differently? Are memory-related age differences an epiphenomenon of a more general deficit? Can one prevent or even reverse age-related memory declines with training programs?

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1. Differential Aging of Memory Systems

Research on the varieties of memory have always been at the core of cognitive research and invariably found their way into aging research (for reviews see Light 1991, Zacks et al. 2000; for a less technical review see Schacter 1997). The most traditional distinction is the one between short-term memory and long-term memory. Within each of these categories, research has spawned more refined subcategories.

1.1 Short-term Memory, Working Memory, and Executi e Control Processes

The traditional measure of short-term memory is the memory span task which measures the number of items (e.g., digits, words) presented at a fast pace that can be reproduced in correct serial order with a 50 percent success rate (forward span). Older adults exhibit a minor but reliable decline in this measure; age effects are much more pronounced when items must be reported in the reverse order of presentation (backward span). This pattern of results maps well onto the more recent distinction between phonological loop and central executive in the working memory framework. Forward span seems to rely on the phonological loop. In contrast, backward span requires the reorganization of information before production, presumably in the central executive component. Some of the largest (i.e., disproportionate) effects of age have been reported for tasks requiring such simultaneous processing and storage of information. This specific age deficit is mirrored by age-related physiological differences in the frontal cortex, specifically the frontostriatal dopaminergic system (for a review see Prull et al. 2000). Recent proposals question the notion of a single central executive and argue that processing costs and associated age effects are tied to the implementation of specific executi e control processes which are linked strongly to specific task domains. For example, important executive control processes required for reasoning about novel figural material show very large decline with age, whereas those involved in sentence comprehension do not.

1.2 Semantic, Episodic, and Source Memory

One of the most striking dissociations of age and long-term memory relates to the distinction between semantic memory (factual knowledge) and episodic memory (knowledge tied to specific coordinates of place and time). Interestingly, age invariance in semantic memory appears to hold not only in terms of amount of knowledge (as is long known from the adult-age stability of crystallized intelligence) but also in terms of speed of accessing or retrieving information (see also Sect. 2.2 below). Such results obviously limit proposals of general age-related slowing. Moreover, age invariance in accuracy of comprehension is found for many other syntactic, semantic, and pragmatic aspects of language use once the influence of contributions of executive control processes is taken into account (for a review see Kemper and Kliegl 1999).

In contrast to semantic memory, older adults exhibit reliable deficits in episodic memory (i.e., in the ability to learn new material; for a review see Kausler 1994 and Smith 1996). Despite a long research tradition it still remains unclear whether the problem relates to encoding or retrieval components of the task, but most agree that storage of information appears to be least affected. There is quite solid evidence pointing to a specific age-related increase in susceptibility to proactive interference (i.e., the harmful consequences of old age for the acquisition of new knowledge). In general, however, older adults respond like younger ones to experimental manipulations of material to be learned (e.g., degree of organization, familiarity, concreteness of words).

A promising line of current research focuses on the defining component of episodic memory. Older adults have problems in generating or retrieving contextual details or the source of newly acquired information (for a review see Johnson et al. 1993). For example, they are worse than young adults in recalling the color in which an item was presented and they recall less well who told them about a specific event. Problems with source memory impede the ability to update or revise one’s memory (e.g., the current parking slot of the car, keeping track of developments in a scientific field). They obviously might underlie difficulties of older adults in a very wide spectrum of everyday activities.

1.3 Procedural and Implicit Memory

The research reviewed in Sects. 1.1 and 1.2 focused largely on deliberate or explicit memory tasks. One prominent recent line of research examines procedural or implicit memory, that is, the influence of past experiences (i.e., memories) on current performance unbeknownst to the person or without their deliberate attempt. Motor skills are the prime example of procedural memory; their availability even after years of disuse is well known and there is good evidence that this remains so into old age. At a somewhat subtler level it has been shown that reading a word will make this word more perceptible later in a word identification task. Most importantly, such implicit memories appear to exert their effects almost equally strongly in younger and older adults and across many days. Conceivably, this type of memory may turn out not to be affected by normal aging after removal of task contaminations due to executive control processes.

2. Age Effects on Memory as an Indicator of General Processing Efficiency

Distinctions between different memory systems originating in cognitive research map onto a varied pattern of aging with a strong gradation. As age is an individual difference, not an experimental variable (i.e., we cannot randomly assign people to be young or old), age differences in memory tasks are typically correlated with other cognitive abilities (such as general intelligence). Consequently, age differences reported in cognitive memory research might reflect the participants’ general cognitive processing efficiency. This section reviews the most prominent accounts in this line of research.

2.1 Decline of Processing Resources

Age differences in memory tasks could result from age differences in a limited processing resource such as, for example, processing speed or working memory capacity. The amount of resources needed for successful performance depends also on characteristics of the memory task, such as the amount of cues provided to support retrieval. Thus, age differences in memory are quite sensitive to the particular constellation of internal (i.e., decline of resources) and external factors (i.e., environmental support) associated with a task (Craik 1983). Moreover, limits of processing speed could be the cause or the consequence of limits of working memory capacity or its associated subsystems. For example, with faster cognitive processing one can use more information from working memory before it decays. Alternatively, the number of processing steps for solving a given task, and hence the total processing time required, may depend inversely on the size of working memory capacity. In correlational research, regression analyses have been used to determine the chain of causation (e.g., Salthouse 1996). Measures of processing speed (e.g., WAIS digitsymbol substitution) mediate age differences in measures of working memory capacity (e.g., computational span) much better than vice versa. Measures of processing speed also account for a large share of age-related individual differences in episodic memory tasks. Note, however, that psychometric measures of speed and working memory are complex cognitive tasks with an unclear contribution of the processes which they attempt to explain.

An alternative approach to link external and internal resources is to determine the amount of presentation time (i.e., an external resource) needed by younger and older adults for the same level of accuracy across a wide variety of tasks or experimental conditions as a proxy of the inverse of the internally available processing resource (Kliegl et al. 1994). The age ratio of such time demands can be determined at several accuracy levels and varies distinctly across processing domains. For example, as mentioned above, older and younger adults do not differ at all in semantic memory access times, whereas older adults need about 1.5 to twice the time of younger adults for responses to relatively novel environmental stimuli as long as stimulus–response associations can be characterized in terms of one-step if-then rules (‘If red, press left’). And older adults need about four times the amount of presentation time of younger adults for complex working memory tasks requiring the coordination of two or more such rules and for a wide variety of list memory tasks (e.g., different list lengths, accuracy levels, word material). Finally, there are task domains (e.g., complex memory updating operations) with age differences in the asymptotic accuracy reached at sufficiently long presentation times. Slowing of processing could cause such effects if intermediate products of processing needed for later processes are lost due to time-based decay or interference (Salthouse 1996). The mechanisms generating different domain specific slowing functions are not yet clear. One expectation is that they will emerge with a better understanding of executive control processes (see Sect. 1.1 above).

2.2 Inhibitory Control

Age-related memory problems have also been linked to a decline in attentional inhibitory control over the contents of working memory (for reviews see Hasher et al. 1999, Zacks et al. 2000). The basic idea is that it is difficult for older adults to keep task-irrelevant thoughts from interfering with ongoing mental activities and, in the case of episodic memory tasks, that this leads to less efficient encoding and retrieval operations. Hasher et al. (1999) distinguish between access, deletion, and restraint functions of inhibitory control which characterize efficient cognitive processing. The role of the access function is to prevent goal-irrelevant material (e.g., autobiographical associations in the context of writing a grant proposal) from access to consciousness. The deletion function serves to suppress material already active but no longer needed (e.g., outdated instructions). The restraint function concerns primarily the inhibition of situationally inappropriate responses and links to the larger domain of action regulation (e.g., off-target speech in conversational settings).

This approach shares considerable overlap with attempts to reconceptualize working memory in terms of executive control processes (see Sect. 1.1) and, therefore, holds considerable potential for convergence of two important current lines of research. There are, however, questions about its adequacy with respect to language functions. For example, off-target speech, which is a prime example of inhibitory control problems, generates systematically higher ratings of interestingness irrespective of age and may reflect subtle positive age differences in sensitivity towards conversational situations rather than an age deficit (Burke 1999). The approach has also been applied to account for age-differential effects of arousal and circadian rhythms on memory performance and thus provides a theory-guided perspective on the context sensitivity of memory functions.

3. Memory Training

Given the ubiquity of age-related memory complaints, the question of prevention or reversal of decline has received considerable attention in research, mostly in laboratory settings (for a review see Camp 1998). Most commonly, participants learned to apply mnemonic techniques (e.g., forming vivid mental images between word pairs) to improve their recall of word lists. Statistical analyses of the effect sizes of 49 such memory interventions based on pretest-posttest designs showed that training and use of mnemonics improved performance in comparison to a same-age control group (Verhaeghen et al. 1992). As in many other domains of skill acquisition, transfer was quite limited, that is, training gain was restricted to the task in the focus of the training. With respect to agedifferential training gains, younger adults benefit more than older adults from memory training but there is also good evidence that older adults can clearly surpass untrained younger adults with a mnemonic strategy tailored to the task (Baltes and Kliegl 1992). Studies about the stability of the intervention found that memory techniques apparently are remembered quite well over at least three years but also that people do not use them for lack of opportunity or because more efficient means to circumvent the problem are available (e.g., external aids). There are, however, also successful interventions demonstrating, for example, improved medication adherence after instruction in mnemonic devices.

Current research focuses on factors that lead to an efficient deployment of memory strategies in everyday life (Camp 1998). One problem of earlier intervention research was that the gap between laboratory memory tasks and real-life demands on memory was simply too large. With affordable and accessible computer technology it is now possible to implement realistic simulations of everyday memory tasks and of training programs tailored to the individual’s level of performance. Moreover, some memory tasks such as associating faces and names likely require a skill acquisition course similar to one envisioned for learning to play a new musical instrument or learning to speak a new language, including systematic coaching and deliberate practice (Kliegl et al. 2000). Such expertise programs aim at circumventing past performance limitations with qualitatively different strategies and task-specific knowledge. They have already been shown to enable, for example, the acquisition of a digit span of 120 by a 70-year-old adult (Kliegl and Baltes 1987). However, taking into account the necessary investment of time, not many of those persons complaining about a poor face–name memory are likely to be motivated enough to carry out a strenuous training program and rather prefer to sustain the embarrassment of occasionally not remembering a name. Information about such cost–benefit ratios will become highly relevant for assessing the quality of cognitive interventions in general; the area of memory and aging appears to be particularly well suited for the development of prototypes in this respect.

4. Conclusion

Research on memory and aging has been a fertile testing ground for mainstream cognitive theories of memory as well as for the development of theories of cognitive aging. Distinctions between different memory systems receive considerable support from interactions with age. The search for the level at which a unifying theoretical framework can be formulated productively remains an important goal. Recent advances in monitoring of brain activities may yield new perspectives and constraints for the next steps of theoretical development. Two limitations must be mentioned. Research in this field is typically based on cross-sectional contrasts of students (18–25 years of age) and healthy, well-educated older adults (65–75 years). Therefore, results are not representative of the population at large but reflective of an upper-bound estimate given fortunate life circumstances; research on pathological older populations, especially dementia, was not covered (for a review of interventions see Camp 1998). Age effects may also be contaminated with effects due to birth cohort (i.e., older adults were born and raised in different times and cultural settings). In general, however, the core results presented here appear to hold up in longitudinal research (for a very extensive report on longitudinal memory changes see Hultsch et al. 1998). Over 90 percent of older adults express concern about their memory when asked about the downsides of age. Obviously, memory and aging is not only a multifaceted theoretical challenge but also a domain with many opportunities for cognitive psychology to prove its value in real-life settings.


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