Memory Slower? You’re Processing a Lifetime of Information!

Older adults have always joked that it takes them longer to remember things because they must sort through their years of knowledge to find the right answer. They might say something like, “My brain is too full!”

Is this true? Research recently appearing in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science described the work of linguistics researchers who are using computers to demonstrate that, indeed, the “full brain” of seniors is the most common cause of slower memory and slower performance on certain memory-related tests.

The study team, headed by Dr. Michael Ramscar of the University of Tübingen in Germany, put computers to the test by loading them with information to simulate the increased knowledge of human seniors. Would computers experience a “senior moment”? According to the researchers, when the computer sorted through a small amount of information, its performance on cognitive tests resembled that of younger humans. But, say the researchers, “When the same computer was exposed to the experiences we might encounter over a lifetime, its performance looked like that of an older adult. Often it was slower, not because processing capacity had declined. Rather, increased ‘experience’ had caused the computer’s database to grow, giving it more data to process—which takes time.”

The researchers say that standard memory tests may not yield an accurate picture of an older adult’s memory health. They explain that older brains not only have more memories to sift through, but also more chances to forget things.

The team also examined a classic memory lapse many seniors worry about: forgetting names. They remind us that the more people we meet in life or read about, the more names we need to sort through and remember. And seniors of today, take heart: The researchers also reported that it is harder now than it was two generations ago to connect faces to names, due to a much greater diversity in names today. They say, “The number of names anyone learns over their lifetime has increased dramatically. This work shows how this makes locating a name in memory far harder than it used to be. Even for computers.”

Of course, not all memory loss is benign. It’s important to know the signs that might indicate a problem. According to the National Institute on Aging, these are some symptoms that indicate that a person should consult their healthcare provider:

  • Asking the same question over and over
  • Becoming lost in places that are familiar
  • Not being able to follow directions
  • Becoming more confused about time, people and places
  • Neglecting personal safety, hygiene and nutrition

These symptoms might indicate the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or other serious memory loss. Or they could result from a fortunately treatable cause such as medication side effects, infections, nutritional deficiencies, depression or alcohol abuse. No matter what the cause, early diagnosis is important.

Meanwhile, seniors who are experiencing normal age-related changes of memory should take these words of Dr. Ramscar to heart: “The brains of older people do not get weak. On the contrary, they simply know more.” Given that age-related stereotypes have been shown to trigger depression and inactivity, this understanding is great ammunition for combating the clichés that slow us down!

Learn More

The National Institute on Aging offers the free booklet, “Understanding Memory Loss: What To Do When You Have Trouble Remembering,” that explains the difference between mild forgetfulness and more serious memory problems.

Source: AgeWise reporting on study from Tubingen University.