National Geographic Daily News
A photo of a hand and a photo.

New research says older people are slow on memory tests because they have more mental data to search for the answer.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MARGHERITA VITAGLIANO, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC YOUR SHOT

Susan Brink

for National Geographic

Published January 28, 2014

A few years ago, Michael Ramscar, a linguistics researcher at the University of Tübingen in Germany, came across a paper saying that cognitive decline starts as early as age 45. He was 45 himself and felt he hadn't yet peaked. He remembers thinking: "That doesn't make sense to me; 99 percent of the people I look up to intellectually, who keep me on my mettle, are older than I am."

The paper concluded that a person's vocabulary declines after age 45, and that finding really made no sense to him. The researchers were trying to measure how quickly people remembered words, he says, without even considering the quantity of words they had stored in memory.

Ramscar began to wonder who has the better memory: the young person who knows a little and remembers all of it, or the older person who has learned a lot and forgets a little of it?

His research, published in the January 2014 issue of Topics in Cognitive Science, argues that studies on memory ask the wrong questions. It could be that older, wiser heads are so chock full of knowledge that it simply takes longer to retrieve the right bits. (It's important to note that the research is aimed at healthy, aging brains, not those afflicted with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia, which rob the brain of memory and other abilities.)

Many memory tests might ask a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old to memorize a list of items, then recall them. The tests don't address the size and content of each subject's existing memory. So Ramscar created computer models simulating young brains and older brains. He fed information into both models but added buckets more information to the model meant to simulate an older brain.

"I could see precious little evidence of decline in [the models of] healthy, older people," he says. "Their slowness and slight forgetfulness were exactly what I'd expect" because with more to draw on, there are more places to search, and there's more information to search through to find an answer.

Both Fuller and Slower

There's no denying that older people have acquired more experience and information than younger people, says Denise Park, co-director of the Center for Vital Longevity at the University of Texas at Dallas, whose research focuses on how the mind changes and adapts as people age. "As we age we accrue knowledge, have a higher vocabulary score, and know more about the world," says Park. "There's a reason we don't have 20-year-olds running the world."

She sees the value of Ramscar's research but also believes there's no denying that the brain deteriorates with age just as every other body part does.

Rather than the brain being slower just because it contains so much information, it is also slowing down from simple aging, she said. Imaging studies show clearly that even healthy aging brains show signs of shrinkage in areas concerned with learning, reason, and memory. At the same time, the greater store of knowledge helps older brains compensate.

So it could be that a couple of things are going on at the same time: The aging brain is accumulating knowledge, kind of like a library full of dusty volumes. And because it is deteriorating like any other body part, it operates more slowly.

So Park believes that we forget more as we get older, and we compensate for that memory loss by being able to draw on a bigger pool of stored knowledge. "It may be true that knowledge slows down the system, but that doesn't mean that the system, as it ages, doesn't also operate more slowly," says Park. "I would argue that the amount of knowledge allows us to compensate for the slowdown."

Her conclusion: "I strongly believe that our everyday performance does not decline with age." That's because as the ability to retrieve memories quickly declines, the brain is still building up stores of knowledge from which to draw.

Storage Space

In the long run, Ramscar hopes his research, which he discusses on his blog, can help define normal patterns of aging, and that older people can begin to think about what is happening to their brains as something other than "a decline."

If only we could do as Sherlock Holmes did: He allowed only pertinent clues, like shed hairs or scratched doorjambs, to find a home in his brain. When his colleague Dr. Watson told him, in A Study in Scarlet, that the Earth revolved around the sun, Holmes dismissed the information as unworthy of storage space: "Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before."

32 comments
cheryl galsworthy
cheryl galsworthy

I find I can go to bed pondering on something I cannot recall and dream about it and get the answer so maybe the brain 'finds' it when we are sleeping.

Arlyn Valencia
Arlyn Valencia

I agree with Ramscar here. I myself am not a spring chicken anymore, but my job ( as a stroke neurologist who handles the most complicated cases requiring fast-decision making) my memory pathways have been through the wringers, day in, day out. But am still proud to say, I remember each detail of my patients, the lab values, the actual images of their several neuroimaging and vascular imaging, the scenario and details of my encounters, i.e. where the wife was sitting at, how the patient was positioned, the trees I saw through the window, the nurses' input, etc --- these i actually "see" in my mind. But ask me to recall an actor's name and blurt it out in a nanosecond, I might not be able to do that. I agree with Nick Mark's allusion to Einstein's comment. Memory storage for easy recall, recognition, oh and even registration of new memory, facilitation of it's entrance into our memory bank, require a relatively intense emotion, importance of event being registered in our brain, and in a way, the brain's way of storing them as it wants it be be stored. 

H. Allen
H. Allen

One also performs less well on tests because of stress and as one ages there are more physical things to be stressed about; so it is a "chicken and egg" scenario--- If one forgets something, it causes stress and then the stress causes one not to perform as well.

Hank Isaac
Hank Isaac

My daughter came across an article which suggests that when we recall a memory, like the details of an event, it is the recalled memory which then becomes the "memory" of that event.  Each time we recall it, it is sort of "re-saved" as "the" memory.  Interesting notion.  Would explain why details sometimes get fuzzy or change entirely.


Anyone else here of this?

Nick Mark
Nick Mark

Einstein said:  "I refuse to clutter my brain memorizing things I can look up."  (This may not be verbatim, but close enough.)

Joan Apthorp
Joan Apthorp

The Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci used and taught a system called the "memory palace", whereby you place each item you need to remember in a special location in this large house, so that you can (mentally) go there and retrieve it whenever you needed it. This was around 1600AD.

Jorge Sánchez
Jorge Sánchez

I think some people reach their intellectual peak in their 60s, of course is not a rule.

Anya Coutinho
Anya Coutinho

Very interesting information! I think it gives hope for elder people who still want to start some new activities and to learn one more foreign language,for example.

pamela letstalkaboutcorsica
pamela letstalkaboutcorsica

that makes sense, although we must be careful of too much modern technology which is inclined to do a lot of so called 'thinking' for us, in other words, correct dosage in order to maintain creative activity, imagination from its source and stronger natural perception

anslem marino dissanayake
anslem marino dissanayake

When you get old not only you gain more knowledge & experience but look at the commitments towards life & living, the problems you get, those things may affect the ability to slow down your memory. Dont you think ? 

Rx Shan
Rx Shan

When you compare your brain with a computer simulation i think that wont give you good results . Its de fault when you load lots of information on your computer it slows down not because of young or old brain

Emil Bulabos
Emil Bulabos

This a good study. I think this is correct.

bru swan
bru swan

Being 58 years old these are the kind of things I like to hear... :-) 

Vishwas Dattatraya Sangle
Vishwas Dattatraya Sangle

It's amazing that during the process of  aging you forget the things happened in your short past but could still remember / recollect a small bite of your childhood. 

Craig Anthony Thomas
Craig Anthony Thomas

New research says older people are slow on memory tests because they have more mental data to search for the answer."


Wasn't there a similar study involving people who are fluent in more than one language? Bilingual folks generally perform lower on IQ tests because they are processing more data.


It certainly sounds familiar to my sixty-something ears.

Nidhal Al-Nakkash
Nidhal Al-Nakkash

Very true especially if we keep our brains active by reading , writing solving problems exercises  and other mental activities ,,,eating healthy food ,,having enough hours of sleep ...I think our brains will stay sharp no matter how  old we get as long as long it stays active ; however , sometimes remembering minute things can be slightly slower than other materials ... surely when it comes to long lists of numbers a younger person will do better - considering they are in the same level of cleverness ... it might not be as sharp as young people but it will be OK ...

Tina Wade-Lucas
Tina Wade-Lucas

Funny that I'm reading this today because yesterday, my brain shut down completely.  I could not remember my ATM pin number, to save my life. I'm riding the train, thinking when "when I get off the train, I'll stop at the ATM. Wait, what's my pin #. I can't remember my pin number."  I even tried moving my fingers like I'm punching in a code to see if that would jolt my memory. Then some numbers popped in my head. So, I said that must be the pin number.  Tried it. NOPE! Had to get a brand new pin #. I mean, it's just gone.  Swoosh! Yet, things have been popping into my head from 30/40 years ago.  Did I mention I'm 55? I have been recently playing these Escape games on my Kindle Fire.  The object of the games is to find all the clues in a room, collect data, retrieve objects until AND ENTER CODES/NUMBERS to advance to the next level/room. So, I've been entering a lot more codes/numbers into my brain recently. And it's starting to rattle my brain. Lol  Especially in this day and age where everything requires some kind of numeric code to access or connect with. And, I'm just getting old. (Smile)

Herbert Garrett
Herbert Garrett

Seniors I think have accumulated a lot of information of various subjects.The older you get you begin to clean-up or discard what is not relevant.Too much bad info clutters and blocks out the good!

Joseph Muguwa
Joseph Muguwa

On fuller and slower, it could even probabaly be that older people are simply good and better at prioritising what is specifically important to them (to store) through prioritising and literally throw away from their  brains what they consider to be irrelevant, and not worthwhile, andf wasteful to store in their brains

Joel Laykin
Joel Laykin

I couldn't agree more.....Now , just what was it that we were talking about ? 

Oh yes . aging brains . I was especially intrigued by Ms Chen's contribution which sent me promptly to google . Yes , Glial and Myelin are real words that presumably can be accepted on a Scrabble Board .......

>>>>>>>>>>>Joel Laykin , 79  , Quarry Bay

Lucia Chen
Lucia Chen

Using computation stimulation is smart! But you can't ignore the fact that decrease of glia cells  and myelin sheath as you grow old weaken your transduction speed. 

Jan Wiechowski
Jan Wiechowski

I think that for this reason some employers prefer younger people would not feel threatened owned by their knowledge.

Keenan R.
Keenan R.

Precisely why we were always told to respect our elders

Albe Plumer
Albe Plumer

some memories I dod not  want  to  keep, nor  do i have a choice, every few years  the visual memories  seem to delete by  the brain  itself. The odor and feel seem to last  longer.

LM Bowland
LM Bowland

I'm 60 and continually learning. If I forget something, it's because I don't use that bit of information on a daily, monthly or even yearly basis.

cheryl galsworthy
cheryl galsworthy

@Joan Apthorp  A bit like Sherlock Holmes in the current series - gues she stole it from this era.

Alan Baumann
Alan Baumann

@Craig Anthony Thomas  

As a bilingual person I find circumstances quite often where foreign words give roots to English words, therefore boosting my vocabulary and understanding.   IQ tests are timed and some sections are focused on speed like puzzles and decoding.  I think additional languages boost not only the vocabulary areas, but other questions that bilingual/well traveled people tend know more, like geography and global knowledge.  I know I tested higher as a bilingual adult than a monolingual child.  As far as recall time, I have to say I'm way slower now at Jeopardy than when I was younger.   Maybe because it's more academic knowledge and it's been many years since I've recalled stuff I learned in school and not used since.

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