News Topic aging - specific failures

About these topic collections

I’ve been reporting on memory research for over ten years and these topic pages are simply collections of all the news items I have made on a particular topic. They do not pretend to be in any way exhaustive! I cover far too many areas within memory to come anywhere approaching that. What I aim to do is provide breadth, rather than depth. Outside my own area of cognitive psychology, it is difficult to know how much weight to give to any study (I urge you to read my blog post on what constitutes scientific evidence). That (among other reasons) is why my approach in my news reporting is based predominantly on replication and consistency. It's about the aggregate. So here is the aggregate of those reports I have at one point considered of sufficient interest to discuss. If you know of any research you would like to add to the collection, feel free to write about it in a comment (please provide a reference).

Vulnerability to distraction

Latest news

A study of younger and older adults indicates that memory search tends to decline with age because, with reduced cognitive control, seniors’ minds tend to ‘flit’ too quickly from one information cluster to another.

Evidence is accumulating that age-related cognitive decline is rooted in three related factors: processing speed slows down (because of myelin degradation); the ability to inhibit distractions becomes impaired; working memory capacity is reduced.

A new study adds to this evidence by looking at one particular aspect of age-related cognitive decline: memory search.

The study put 185 adults aged 29-99 (average age 67) through three cognitive tests: a vocabulary test, digit span (a working memory test), and the animal fluency test, in which you name as many animals as you can in one minute.

Typically, in the animal fluency test, people move through semantic categories such as ‘pets’, ‘big cats’, and so on. The best performers are those who move from category to category with optimal timing — i.e., at the point where the category has been sufficiently exhausted that efforts would be better spent on a new one.

Participants recalled on average 17 animal names, with a range from 5 to 33. While there was a decline with age, it wasn’t particularly marked until the 80s (an average of 18.3 for those in their 30s, 17.5 for those in their 60s, 16.5 for the 70s, 12.8 for the 80s, and 10 for the 90s). Digit span did show a decline, but it was not significant (from 17.5 down to 15.3), while vocabulary (consistent with previous research) showed no decline with age.

But all this is by the by — the nub of the experiment was to discover how individuals were searching their memory. This required a quite complicated analysis, which I will not go into, except to mention two important distinctions. The first is between:

  • global context cue: activates each item in the active category according to how strong it is (how frequently it has been recalled in the past);
  • local context cue: activates each item in relation to its semantic similarity to the previous item recalled.

A further distinction was made between static and dynamic processes: in dynamic models, it is assumed the user switches between local and global search. This, it is further assumed, is because memory is ‘patchy’ – that is, information is represented in clusters. Within a cluster, we use local cues, but to move from one cluster to another, we use global cues.

The point of all this was to determine whether age-related decline in memory search has to do with:

  • Reduced processing speed,
  • Persisting too long on categories, or
  • Inability to maintain focus on local cues (this would relate it back to the inhibition deficit).

By modeling the exact recall patterns, the researchers ascertained that the recall process is indeed dynamic, although the points of transition are not clearly understood. The number of transitions from one cluster to another was negatively correlated with age; it was also strongly positively correlated with performance (number of items recalled). Digit span, assumed to measure ‘cognitive control’, was also negatively correlated with number of transitions, but, as I said, was not significantly correlated with age.

In other words, it appears that there is a qualitative change with age, that increasing age is correlated with increased switching, and reduced cognitive control is behind this — although it doesn’t explain it all (perhaps because we’re still not able to fully measure cognitive control).

At a practical level, the message is that memory search may become less efficient because, as people age, they tend to change categories too frequently, before they have exhausted their full potential. While this may well be a consequence of reduced cognitive control, it seems likely (to me at least) that making a deliberate effort to fight the tendency to move on too quickly will pay dividends for older adults who want to improve their memory retrieval abilities.

Nor is this restricted to older adults — since age appears to be primarily affecting performance through its effects on cognitive control, it is likely that this applies to those with reduced working memory capacity, of any age.

Impairment in executive function is apparently far more common in those with MCI than previously thought, with the most common and severe impairment occurring in inhibitory control.

Providing some support for the finding I recently reported — that problems with semantic knowledge in those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s might be rooted in an inability to inhibit immediate perceptual information in favor of conceptual information — a small study has found that executive function (and inhibitory control in particular) is impaired in far more of those with MCI than was previously thought.

The study involved 40 patients with amnestic MCI (single or multiple domain) and 32 healthy older adults. Executive function was tested across multiple sub-domains: divided attention, working memory, inhibitory control, verbal fluency, and planning.

As a group, those with MCI performed significantly more poorly in all 5 sub-domains. All MCI patients showed significant impairment in at least one sub-domain of executive functioning, with almost half performing poorly on all of the tests. The sub-domain most frequently and severely impaired was inhibitory control.

The finding is in sharp contrast with standard screening tests and clinical interviews, which have estimated executive function impairment in only 15% of those with MCI.

Executive function is crucial for many aspects of our behavior, from planning and organization to self-control to (as we saw in the previous news report) basic knowledge. It is increasingly believed that inhibitory control might be a principal cause of age-related cognitive decline, through its effect on working memory.

All this adds weight to the idea that we should be focusing our attention on ways to improve inhibitory control when it declines. Although training to improve working memory capacity has not been very successful, specific training targeted at inhibitory control might have more luck. Something to hope for!

More evidence of the importance of adequate folate consumption for cognitive functioning at all ages.

Most research into the importance of folate and B12 levels has centered on seniors, and it does seem clear now that having adequate levels of these vitamins is important for maintaining cognitive functioning as you get older. Folic acid levels are of course also regarded as crucial when the brain is developing, which is why pregnant women are urged to take supplements, and why some countries fortify their bread with it. There is less research in the extensive ground between these two end-points.

A Swedish study involving 386 15-year-olds has now found that those in the top third of folic acid intake (more than 253 micrograms per day for girls and 335 for boys) performed significantly better on their school grades compared to those in the bottom third (less than 173 micrograms folic acid per day for girls and 227 for boys).

Interestingly, while homocysteine levels in the blood were initially significant, this association disappeared after other significant predictors (gender, smoking, and SES) were controlled for. Neither was a genotype linked to higher homocysteine levels (MTHFR 677 TT homozygosity) significantly related to academic achievement. Low folate and B12 levels are associated with higher homocysteine levels in the blood, and there is evidence that it is this increase in homocysteine that is the reason for the cognitive impairment seen in age-related cognitive decline. This finding, then, suggests that this is only one part of the story.

Sweden does not fortify flour with folic acid as the United States, Canada and Australia do. Folate is a B vitamin found particularly in citrus fruit, green leafy vegetables, whole-wheat bread, and dried beans and peas; however, they are often destroyed by cooking or processing.

The sum of school grades in 10 core subjects obtained in the final semester of compulsory 9 years of schooling was used as the measure of academic achievement

Another study adds to the weight of evidence that meditating has cognitive benefits. The latest finding points to brain-wide improvements in connectivity.

Following on from research showing that long-term meditation is associated with gray matter increases across the brain, an imaging study involving 27 long-term meditators (average age 52) and 27 controls (matched by age and sex) has revealed pronounced differences in white-matter connectivity between their brains.

The differences reflect white-matter tracts in the meditators’ brains being more numerous, more dense, more myelinated, or more coherent in orientation (unfortunately the technology does not yet allow us to disentangle these) — thus, better able to quickly relay electrical signals.

While the differences were evident among major pathways throughout the brain, the greatest differences were seen within the temporal part of the superior longitudinal fasciculus (bundles of neurons connecting the front and the back of the cerebrum) in the left hemisphere; the corticospinal tract (a collection of axons that travel between the cerebral cortex of the brain and the spinal cord), and the uncinate fasciculus (connecting parts of the limbic system, such as the hippocampus and amygdala, with the frontal cortex) in both hemispheres.

These findings are consistent with the regions in which gray matter increases have been found. For example, the tSLF connects with the caudal area of the temporal lobe, the inferior temporal gyrus, and the superior temporal gyrus; the UNC connects the orbitofrontal cortex with the amygdala and hippocampal gyrus

It’s possible, of course, that those who are drawn to meditation, or who are likely to engage in it long term, have fundamentally different brains from other people. However, it is more likely (and more consistent with research showing the short-term effects of meditation) that the practice of meditation changes the brain.

The precise mechanism whereby meditation might have these effects can only be speculated. However, more broadly, we can say that meditation might induce physical changes in the brain, or it might be protecting against age-related reduction. Most likely of all, perhaps, both processes might be going on, perhaps in different regions or networks.

Regardless of the mechanism, the evidence that meditation has cognitive benefits is steadily accumulating.

The number of years the meditators had practiced ranged from 5 to 46. They reported a number of different meditation styles, including Shamatha, Vipassana and Zazen.

A new study further confirms the idea that a growing inability to ignore irrelevancies is behind age-related cognitive decline.

A study involving 125 younger (average age 19) and older (average age 69) adults has revealed that while younger adults showed better explicit learning, older adults were better at implicit learning. Implicit memory is our unconscious memory, which influences behavior without our awareness.

In the study, participants pressed buttons in response to the colors of words and random letter strings — only the colors were relevant, not the words themselves. They then completed word fragments. In one condition, they were told to use words from the earlier color task to complete the fragments (a test of explicit memory); in the other, this task wasn’t mentioned (a test of implicit memory).

Older adults showed better implicit than explicit memory and better implicit memory than the younger, while the reverse was true for the younger adults. However, on a further test which required younger participants to engage in a number task simultaneously with the color task, younger adults behaved like older ones.

The findings indicate that shallower and less focused processing goes on during multitasking, and (but not inevitably!) with age. The fact that younger adults behaved like older ones when distracted points to the problem, for which we now have quite a body of evidence: with age, we tend to become more easily distracted.

A new study adds to the evidence that our ability to focus on one thing and ignore irrelevant information gets worse with age, and that this may be a crucial factor in age-related cognitive impairment.

A study involving young (average age 22) and older adults (average age 77) showed participants pictures of overlapping faces and places (houses and buildings) and asked them to identify the gender of the person. While the young adults showed activity in the brain region for processing faces (fusiform face area) but not in the brain region for processing places (parahippocampal place area), both regions were active in the older adults. Additionally, on a surprise memory test 10 minutes later, older adults who showed greater activation in the place area were more likely to recognize what face was originally paired with what house.

These findings confirm earlier research showing that older adults become less capable of ignoring irrelevant information, and shows that this distracting information doesn’t merely interfere with what you’re trying to attend to, but is encoded in memory along with that information.

Indications that talking provides mental stimulation that helps sharpen your brain are supported and explained by new evidence that particular types of conversation are beneficial.

Following on from earlier research suggesting that simply talking helps keep your mind sharp at all ages, a new study involving 192 undergraduates indicates that the type of talking makes a difference. Engaging in brief (10 minute) conversations in which participants were simply instructed to get to know another person resulted in boosts to their executive function (the processes involved in working memory, planning, decision-making, and so on). However when participants engaged in conversations that had a competitive edge, their performance showed no improvement. The improvement was limited to executive function; neither processing speed nor general knowledge was affected.

Further experiments indicated that competitive discussion could boost executive function — if the conversations were structured to allow for interpersonal engagement. The crucial factor seems to be the process of getting into another person’s mind and trying to see things from their point of view (something most of us do naturally in conversation).

The findings also provide support for the social brain hypothesis — that we evolved our larger brains to help us deal with large social groups. They also support earlier speculations by the researcher, that parents and teachers could help children improve their intellectual skills by encouraging them to develop their social skills.

Recent rodent studies confirm attention and learning is more difficult for women when estrogen is high, but estrogen therapy can help menopausal women — if given during a critical window.

Recent rodent studies add to our understanding of how estrogen affects learning and memory. A study found that adult female rats took significantly longer to learn a new association when they were in periods of their estrus cycle with high levels of estrogen, compared to their ability to learn when their estrogen level was low. The effect was not found among pre-pubertal rats. The study follows on from an earlier study using rats with their ovaries removed, whose learning was similarly affected when given high levels of estradiol.

Human females have high estrogen levels while they are ovulating. These high levels have also been shown to interfere with women's ability to pay attention.

On the other hand, it needs to be remembered that estrogen therapy has been found to help menopausal and post-menopausal women. It has also been found to be detrimental. Recent research has suggested that timing is important, and it’s been proposed that a critical period exists during which hormone therapy must be administered if it is to improve cognitive function.

This finds some support in another recent rodent study, which found that estrogen replacement increased long-term potentiation (a neural event that underlies memory formation) in young adult rats with their ovaries removed, through its effects on NMDA receptors and dendritic spine density — but only if given within 15 months of the ovariectomy. By 19 months, the same therapy couldn’t induce the changes.

Experiments with mice have found that inhibiting the production of kynurenic acid in the brain has dramatic benefits for cognitive performance.

Commercial use is a long way off, but research with mice offers hope for a ‘smart drug’ that doesn’t have the sort of nasty side-effects that, for example, amphetamines have. The mice, genetically engineered to produce dramatically less (70%) kynurenic acid, had markedly better cognitive abilities. The acid, unusually, is produced not in neurons but in glia, and abnormally high levels are produced in the brains of people with disorders such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer's and Huntington's. More acid is also typically produced as we get older.

The acid is produced in our brains after we’ve eaten food containing the amino acid tryptophan, which helps us produce serotonin (turkey is a food well-known for its high tryptophan levels). But serotonin helps us feel good (low serotonin levels are linked to depression), so the trick is to block the production of kynurenic acid without reducing the levels of serotonin. The next step is therefore to find a chemical that blocks production of the acid in the glia, and can safely be used in humans. Although no human tests have yet been performed, several major pharmaceutical companies are believed to be following up on this research.

Many studies have now shown that walking helps older brains fight cognitive decline, but a new study shows that this is also associated with improved connectivity in important brain networks.

A study involving 65 older adults (59-80), who were very sedentary before the study (reporting less than two episodes of physical activity lasting 30 minutes or more in the previous six months), has found that those who joined a walking group improved their cognitive performance and the connectivity in important brain circuits after a year. However, those who joined a stretching and toning group showed no such improvement. The walking program involved three 40-minute walks at a moderate pace every week. The two affected brain circuits (the default mode network and the fronto-executive network) typically become less connected with age. It is worth emphasizing that the improvement was not evident at the first test, after six months, but only at the second 12-month test.

Interestingly, I noticed in the same journal issue a study into the long-term benefits of dancing for older adults. The study compared physical and cognitive performance of those who had engaged in amateur dancing for many years (average: 16.5 years) and those with no dancing or sporting engagement. The dancing group were overall significantly better than the other group on all tests: posture, balance, reaction time, motor behavior, cognitive performance. However, the best dancers weren’t any better than individuals in the other group; the group difference arose because none of the dancers performed poorly, while many of the other group did.

A new study shows improvement in visual working memory in older adults following ten hours training with a commercial brain training program. The performance gains correlated with changes in brain activity.

While brain training programs can certainly improve your ability to do the task you’re practicing, there has been little evidence that this transfers to other tasks. In particular, the holy grail has been very broad transfer, through improvement in working memory. While there has been some evidence of this in pilot programs for children with ADHD, a new study is the first to show such improvement in older adults using a commercial brain training program.

A study involving 30 healthy adults aged 60 to 89 has demonstrated that ten hours of training on a computer game designed to boost visual perception improved perceptual abilities significantly, and also increased the accuracy of their visual working memory to the level of younger adults. There was a direct link between improved performance and changes in brain activity in the visual association cortex.

The computer game was one of those developed by Posit Science. Memory improvement was measured about one week after the end of training. The improvement did not, however, withstand multi-tasking, which is a particular problem for older adults. The participants, half of whom underwent the training, were college educated. The training challenged players to discriminate between two different shapes of sine waves (S-shaped patterns) moving across the screen. The memory test (which was performed before and after training) involved watching dots move across the screen, followed by a short delay and then re-testing for the memory of the exact direction the dots had moved.

A comprehensive review of the recent research into the benefits of music training on learning and the brain concludes music training in schools should be strongly supported.

A review of the many recent studies into the effects of music training on the nervous system strongly suggests that the neural connections made during musical training also prime the brain for other aspects of human communication, including learning. It’s suggested that actively engaging with musical sounds not only helps the plasticity of the brain, but also helps provide a stable scaffolding of meaningful patterns. Playing an instrument primes the brain to choose what is relevant in a complex situation. Moreover, it trains the brain to make associations between complex sounds and their meaning — something that is also important in language. Music training can provide skills that enable speech to be better heard against background noise — useful not only for those with some hearing impairment (it’s a common difficulty as we get older), but also for children with learning disorders. The review concludes that music training tones the brain for auditory fitness, analogous to the way physical exercise tones the body, and that the evidence justifies serious investment in music training in schools.

[1678] Kraus, N., & Chandrasekaran B. (2010).  Music training for the development of auditory skills. Nat Rev Neurosci. 11(8), 599 - 605.

Older adults are more likely to forget that they've done something. A new study has found that doing something unusual (such as putting a hand on their head) at the same time helps seniors remember having done the task.

Previous research has shown that older adults are more likely to incorrectly repeat an action in situations where a prospective memory task has become habitual — for example, taking more medication because they’ve forgotten they’ve already taken it. A new study has found that doing something unusual at the same time helps seniors remember having done the task. In the study, older adults told to put a hand on their heads whenever they made a particular response, reduced the level of repetition errors to that of younger adults. It’s suggested that doing something unusual, like knocking on wood or patting yourself on the head, while taking a daily dose of medicine may be an effective strategy to help seniors remember whether they've already taken their daily medications.

A study has found resistance training significantly improved selective attention and conflict resolution in older women, but balance and tone training did not.

A study involving 155 women aged 65-75 has found that those who participated in resistance training once or twice weekly for a year significantly improved their selective attention (maintaining mental focus) and conflict resolution (as well as muscular function of course!), compared to those who participated in twice-weekly balance and tone training. Performance on the Stroop test improved by 12.6% and 10.9% in the once-weekly and twice-weekly resistance training groups respectively, while it deteriorated by 0.5% in the balance and tone group. Improved attention and conflict resolution was also significantly associated with increased gait speed.

A new study provides more support for the idea that cognitive decline in older adults is a product of a growing inability to ignore distractions, and that forewarning doesn't help.

A new study provides more support for the idea that cognitive decline in older adults is a product of a growing inability to ignore distractions. Moreover, the study, involving 21 older adults (60-80) shown random sequences of pictures containing faces and scenes and asked to remember only the scene or the face, reveals that being given forewarning about which specific pictures would be relevant (say the second, or the fourth) did not help. The findings suggest that the failure to suppress irrelevant information is not due to a failure in quickly assessing what is relevant, but is a related to mechanisms that occur early in the visual processing stream.

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

More evidence the aging brain is easily distracted

Here’s another study demonstrating that older adults aren't able to filter out distracting information as well as younger adults. The imaging study compared face recognition performance in younger adults (average age 26) and older (average age 70). It was found that, for both groups, difficulties encoding a new face were marked by decreased activity in the hippocampus. But older brains also showed increased activation in the auditory cortex, left prefrontal cortex and medial parietal cortex, showing that they were processing too much irrelevant information from their external environment – the notoriously loud noise of the scanner. Apart from confirming the distractibility of the older brain, the finding also raises questions about imaging studies in general, for older adults. It’s likely that older adults’ cognitive performance have been systematically underestimated.

[520] Stevens, D. W., Hasher L., Chiew K. S., & Grady C. L. (2008).  A Neural Mechanism Underlying Memory Failure in Older Adults. J. Neurosci.. 28(48), 12820 - 12824.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-11/bcfg-sfm112408.php

Age-related memory loss tied to slip in filtering information quickly

Increasing research in recent years has concluded that one of the problems for the aging brain is a diminished ability to ignore irrelevant information. In fact, many believe it is the major problem for the healthy aging brain. Others believe, more traditionally, that the main problem is a decline in processing speed. A new study shows that both of these happen — in tandem. The difficulty in suppressing irrelevant information occurs because the processing of that irrelevant information has slowed down. This slowdown, at least in visual memory, seems to occur only in the first 200 milliseconds of visual processing, and the difficulty in suppressing irrelevant information occurs only during this period. This suppression failure is thought to impact on working memory.

[553] Gazzaley, A., Clapp W., Kelley J., McEvoy K., Knight R. T., & D'Esposito M. (2008).  Age-related top-down suppression deficit in the early stages of cortical visual memory processing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105(35), 13122 - 13126.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2008-09/uoc--aml090208.php

More on why older adults are more distractible

A number of recent studies have made it clear that as we age, we find it harder to block out unwanted distractions. A new study used a new brain imaging technique known as EROS to determine whether this is due to faster sensory memory decay or to inefficient filtering of irrelevant sensory information. The study involved 16 young and 16 older participants who read a book of their choice while distracting tones played in the background. The volume of the tones was adjusted so that all the participants heard them at the same level, and the tones were emitted in groups of fives. The young participants showed brain activity in the auditory cortex in response to the first tone in each sequence only, but the older adults' brains responded to all five. The finding supports the view that the growing difficulty at blocking out distractions is due to inefficient filtering of irrelevant sensory information , not faster sensory memory decay.

[1380] Fabiani, M., Low K. A., Wee E., Sable J. J., & Gratton G. (2006).  Reduced Suppression or Labile Memory? Mechanisms of Inefficient Filtering of Irrelevant Information in Older Adults. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 18(4), 637 - 650.

http://www.sciencentral.com/articles/view.htm3?article_id=218392783

Why older adults more vulnerable to distraction from irrelevant information

We know older adults find it harder to filter out irrelevant information. Now a study looking at brain function in young, middle-aged and older adults has identified changes in brain activity that begin gradually in middle age which may explain why. In younger adults, activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (associated with tasks that require concentration, such as reading) normally increases during the task, while activity in the medial frontal and parietal regions (associated with non-task related activity in a resting state, such as thinking about yourself, what you did last night, monitoring what's going on around you) normally decreases. In middle age (40-60 years), this pattern begins to break down during performance of memory tasks, although performance is not affected (but most of the participants were fairly well educated, so the finding of brain changes without accompanying behavioural changes in the middle-aged group may reflect the "protective effect" of education). Activity in the medial frontal and parietal regions stays turned on while activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex decreases. The imbalance becomes more pronounced in older adults (65+), suggesting there is a gradual, age-related reduction in the ability to suspend non-task-related or "default-mode" activity and engage areas for carrying out memory tasks.

[759] Grady, C. L., Springer M. V., Hongwanishkul D., McIntosh A. R., & Winocur G. (2006).  Age-related Changes in Brain Activity across the Adult Lifespan. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 18(2), 227 - 241.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-02/b-oam013006.php

Changes in brain, not age, determine one's ability to focus on task

It’s been established that one of the reasons why older adults may do less well on cognitive tasks is because they have greater difficulty in ignoring distractions, which impairs their concentration. But not all older people are afflicted by this. Some are as focused as young adults. An imaging study has now revealed a difference between the brains of those people who are good at focusing, and those who are poor. Those who have difficulty screening out distractions have less white matter in the frontal lobes. They activated neurons in the left frontal lobe as well as the right. Young people and high-functioning older adults tended to use only the right frontal lobe.

[1117] Colcombe, S. J., Kramer A. F., Erickson K. I., & Scalf P. (2005).  The implications of cortical recruitment and brain morphology for individual differences in inhibitory function in aging humans. Psychology and Aging. 20(3), 363 - 375.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-10/uoia-cib102605.php

Memory loss in older adults due to distractions, not inability to focus

We know that older adults often have short-term memory problems, and this has been linked to problems with attention. An imaging study now provides evidence that these short-term memory problems are associated with an inability to filter out surrounding distractions, rather than problems with focusing attention. It’s been suggested that an inability to ignore distracting information may indeed be at the heart of many of the cognitive problems that accompany aging. It should be noted that this is not an inevitable effect of age — in the study, 6 of the 16 older adults involved had no problems with short-term memory or attention.

[383] Gazzaley, A., Cooney J. W., Rissman J., & D'Esposito M. (2005).  Top-down suppression deficit underlies working memory impairment in normal aging. Nat Neurosci. 8(10), 1298 - 1300.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-09/uoc--mli090805.php

Source memory failures

Latest news

Another study has come out supporting the idea that negative stereotypes about aging and memory affect how well older adults remember. In this case, older adults reminded of age-related decline were more likely to make memory errors.

In the study, 64 older adults (60-74; average 70) and 64 college students were compared on a word recognition task. Both groups first took a vocabulary test, on which they performed similarly. They were then presented with 12 lists of 15 semantically related words. For example, one list could have words associated with "sleep," such as "bed," "rest," "awake," "tired" and "night" — but not the word “sleep”. They were not told they would be tested on their memory of these, rather they were asked to rate each word for pleasantness.

They then engaged in a five-minute filler task (a Sudoku) before a short text was read to them. For some, the text had to do with age-related declines in memory. These participants were told the experiment had to do with memory. For others, the text concerned language-processing research. These were told the experiment had to do with language processing and verbal ability.

They were then given a recognition test containing 36 of the studied words, 48 words unrelated to the studied words, and 12 words related to the studied words (e.g. “sleep”). After recording whether or not they had seen each word before, they also rated their confidence in that answer on an 8-point scale. Finally, they were given a lexical decision task to independently assess stereotype activation.

While young adults showed no effects from the stereotype manipulation, older adults were much more likely to falsely recognize related words that had not been studied if they had heard the text on memory. Those who heard the text on language were no more likely than the young adults to falsely recognize related words.

Note that there is always quite a high level of false recognition of such items: young adults, and older adults in the low-threat condition falsely recognized around half of the related lures, compared to around 10% of unrelated words. But in the high-threat condition, older adults falsely recognized 71% of the related words.

Moreover, older adults’ confidence was also affected. While young adults’ confidence in their false memories was unaffected by threat condition, older adults in the high-threat condition were more confident of their false memories than older adults in the low-threat condition.

The idea that older adults were affected by negative stereotypes about aging was supported by the results of the lexical decision task, which found that, in the high-threat condition, older adults responded more quickly to words associated with negative stereotypes than to neutral words (indicating that they were more accessible). Young adults did not show this difference.

Thomas, A. K., & Dubois, S. J. (2011). Reducing the burden of stereotype threat eliminates age differences in memory distortion. Psychological science, 22(12), 1515-7. doi:10.1177/0956797611425932

New evidence challenges the view that older adults learn best through errorless learning. Trial-and-error learning can be better if done the right way.

Following a 1994 study that found that errorless learning was better than trial-and-error learning for amnesic patients and older adults, errorless learning has been widely adopted in the rehabilitation industry. Errorless learning involves being told the answer without repeatedly trying to answer the question and perhaps making mistakes. For example, in the 1994 study, participants in the trial-and-error condition could produce up to three errors in answer to the question “I am thinking of a word that begins with QU”, before being told the answer was QUOTE; in contrast, participants in the errorless condition were simply told “I am thinking of a word that begins with QU and it is ‘QUOTE’.”

In a way, it is surprising that errorless learning should be better, given that trial-and-error produces much deeper and richer encoding, and a number of studies with young adults have indeed found an advantage for making errors. Moreover, it’s well established that retrieving an item leads to better learning than passively studying it, even when you retrieve the wrong item. This testing effect has also been found in older adults.

In another way, the finding is not surprising at all, because clearly the trial-and-error condition offers many opportunities for confusion. You remember that QUEEN was mentioned, for example, but you don’t remember whether it was a right or wrong answer. Source memory, as I’ve often mentioned, is particularly affected by age.

So there are good theoretical reasons for both positions regarding the value of mistakes, and there’s experimental evidence for both. Clearly it’s a matter of circumstance. One possible factor influencing the benefit or otherwise of error concerns the type of processing. Those studies that have found a benefit have generally involved conceptual associations (e.g. What’s Canada’s capital? Toronto? No, Ottawa). It may be that errors are helpful to the extent that they act as retrieval cues, and evoke a network of related concepts. Those studies that have found errors harm learning have generally involved perceptual associations, such as word stems and word fragments (e.g., QU? QUeen? No, QUote). These errors are arbitrary, produce interference, and don’t provide useful retrieval cues.

So this new study tested the idea that producing errors conceptually associated with targets would boost memory for the encoding context in which information was studied, especially for older adults who do not spontaneously elaborate on targets at encoding.

In the first experiment, 33 young (average age 21) and 31 older adults (average age 72) were shown 90 nouns presented in three different, intermixed conditions. In the read condition (designed to provide a baseline), participants read aloud the noun fragment presented without a semantic category (e.g., p­_g). In the errorless condition, the semantic category was presented with the target word fragment (e.g. a farm animal  p­_g), and the participants read aloud the category and their answer. The category and target were then displayed. In the trial-and-error condition, the category was presented and participants were encouraged to make two guesses before being shown the target fragment together with the category. The researchers changed the target if it was guessed. Participants were then tested using a list of 70 words, of which 10 came from each of the study conditions, 10 were new unrelated words, and 30 were nontarget exemplars from the TEL categories. Those that the subject had guessed were labeled as learning errors; those that hadn’t come up were labeled as related lures. In addition to an overall recognition test (press “yes” to any word you’ve studied and “no” to any new word), there were two tests that required participants to endorse items that were studied in the TEL condition and reject those studied in the EL condition, and vice versa.

The young adults did better than the older on every test. TEL produced better learning than EL, and both produced better learning than the read condition (as expected). The benefit of TEL was greater for older adults. This is in keeping with the idea that generating exemplars of a semantic category, as occurs in trial-and-error learning, helps produce a richer, more elaborated code, and that this is of greater to older adults, who are less inclined to do this without encouragement.

There was a downside, however. Older adults were also more prone to falsely endorsing prior learning errors or semantically-related lures. It’s worth noting that both groups were more likely to falsely endorse learning errors than related lures.

But the main goal of this first experiment was to disentangle the contributions of recollection and familiarity to the two types of learning. It turns out that there was no difference between young and older adults in terms of familiarity; the difference in performance between the two groups stemmed from recollection. Recollection was a problem for older adults in the errorless condition, but not in the trial-and-error condition (where the recollective component of their performance matched that of young adults). This deficit is clearly closely related to age-related deficits in source memory.

It was also found that familiarity was marginally more important in the errorless condition than the trial-and-error condition. This is consistent with the idea that targets learned without errors acquire greater fluency than those learned with errors (with the downside that they don’t pick up those contextual details that making errors can provide).

In the second experiment, 15 young and 15 older adults carried out much the same procedure, except that during the recognition test they were also required to mention the context in which the words were learned was tested (that is, were the words learned through trial-and-error or not).

Once again, trial-and-error learning was associated with better source memory relative to errorless learning, particularly for the older adults.

These results support the hypothesis that trial-and-error learning is more beneficial than errorless learning for older adults when the trials encourage semantic elaboration. But another factor may also be involved. Unlike other errorless studies, participants were required to attend to errors as well as targets. Explicit attention to errors may help protect against interference.

In a similar way, a recent study involving young adults found that feedback given in increments (thus producing errors) is more effective than feedback given all at once in full. Clearly what we want is to find that balance point, where elaborative benefits are maximized and interference is minimized.

[2496] Cyr, A. - A., & Anderson N. D. (2011).  Trial-and-error learning improves source memory among young and older adults. Psychology and Aging. No Pagination Specified - No Pagination Specified.

A small study suggests that middle-aged couples are more likely to be effective than older couples in helping fill in each other’s memory gaps, but effective collaboration also depends on conversational style.

In my book on remembering what you’re doing and what you intend to do, I briefly discuss the popular strategy of asking someone to remind you (basically, whether it’s an effective strategy depends on several factors, of which the most important is the reliability of the person doing the reminding). So I was interested to see a pilot study investigating the use of this strategy between couples.

The study confirms earlier findings that the extent to which this strategy is effective depends on how reliable the partner's memory is, but expands on that by tying it to age and conversational style.

The study involved 11 married couples, of whom five were middle-aged (average age 52), and six were older adults (average age 73). Participants completed a range of prospective memory tasks by playing the board game "Virtual Week," which encourages verbal interaction among players about completing real life tasks. For each virtual "day" in the game, participants were asked to perform 10 different prospective memory tasks — four that regularly occur (eg, taking medication with breakfast), four that were different each day (eg, purchasing gasoline for the car), and two being time-check tasks that were not based on the activities of the board game (eg, check lung capacity at two specified times).

Overall, the middle-aged group benefited more from collaboration than the older group. But it was also found that those couples who performed best were those who were more supportive and encouraging of each other.

Collaboration in memory tasks is an interesting activity, because it can be both helpful and hindering. Think about how memory works — by association. You start from some point, and if you’re on a good track, more and more should be revealed as each memory triggers another. If another person keeps interrupting your train, you can be derailed. On the other hand, they might help you fill you in gaps that you need, or even point you to the right track, if you’re on the wrong one.

In this small study, it tended to be the middle-aged couples that filled in the gaps more effectively than the older couples. That probably has a lot to do with memory reliability. So it’s not a big surprise (though useful to be aware of). But what I find more interesting (because it’s less obvious, and more importantly, because it’s more under our control) is this idea that our conversational style affects whether memory collaboration is useful or counterproductive. I look forward to results from a larger study.

[2490] Margrett, J. A., Reese-Melancon C., & Rendell P. G. (2011).  Examining Collaborative Dialogue Among Couples. Zeitschrift für Psychologie / Journal of Psychology. 219, 100 - 107.

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Older adults more likely to "remember" misinformation

In a study involving older adults (average age 75) and younger adults (average age 19), participants studied lists of paired related words, then viewed new lists of paired words, some the same as before, some different, and some with only one of the two words the same. In those cases, the "prime" word, which was presented immediately prior to the test, was plausible but incorrect. The older adults were 10 times more likely than young adults to accept the wrong word and falsely "remember" earlier studying that word. This was true even though older adults had more time to study the list of word pairs and attained a performance level equal to that of the young adults. Additionally, when told they had the option to "pass" when unsure of an answer, older adults rarely used the option. Younger adults did, greatly reducing their false recall. The findings reflect real-world reports of a rising incidence of scams perpetrated on the elderly, which rely on the victim’s poor memory and vulnerability to the power of suggestion.

[629] Jacoby, L. L., Bishara A. J., Hessels S., & Toth J. P. (2005).  Aging, subjective experience, and cognitive control: dramatic false remembering by older adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology. General. 134(2), 131 - 148.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-05/apa-gmc051005.php

Repeated product warnings are remembered as product recommendations

Warnings about particular products may have quite the opposite effect than intended. Because we retain a familiarity with encountered items far longer than details, the more often we are told a claim about a consumer item is false, the more likely we are to accept it as true a little further down the track. Research also reveals that older adults are more susceptible to this error. It is relevant to note that in the U.S. at least, some 80% of consumer fraud victims are over 65.

[489] Skurnik, I., Yoon C., Park D. C., & Schwarz N. (2005).  How Warnings about False Claims Become Recommendations. Journal of Consumer Research. 31(4), 713 - 724.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-03/uocp-nrr032905.php

Source-memory problems not an inevitable consequence of aging, but a function of frontal-lobe efficiency

Source memory is memory for the broad contextual aspects surrounding an event, such as who was speaking, or whether you learned something from a book or TV. Previous research has found that it is in this aspect of memory that older people tend to be particularly poor. In a study that compared older individuals with undergraduates, it was found that those who performed above average on frontal-lobe tests, showed no significant impairment of source memory, regardless of age. Those with below-average performance, tended to have impaired source memory (as a group). In other words, source-memory problems are not an inevitable consequence of aging, as has been widely thought, but rather are a function of frontal-lobe efficiency. The proportion of older adults who experience frontal-lobe decline, at what ages, and to what degree, is unknown at this time.
What’s more, when researchers required people to consider the relation between an item and its context (source), age differences in memory performance completely disappeared, suggesting older adults can learn strategies to remember the context better.

[626] Glisky, E. L., Rubin S. R., & Davidson P. S. R. (2001).  Source Memory in Older Adults: An Encoding or Retrieval Problem?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. 27(5), 1131 - 1146.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2001-09/apa-ada083101.php

Word-finding problems

Latest news

A six-week specific language therapy program not only improved chronic aphasic’s ability to name objects, but produced durable changes in brain activity that continued to bring benefits post-training.

Here’s an encouraging study for all those who think that, because of age or physical damage, they must resign themselves to whatever cognitive impairment or decline they have suffered. In this study, older adults who had suffered from aphasia for a long time nevertheless improved their language function after six weeks of intensive training.

The study involved nine seniors with chronic aphasia and 10 age-matched controls. Those with aphasia were given six weeks of intensive and specific language therapy, after which they showed significantly better performance at naming objects. Brain scans revealed that the training had not only stimulated language circuits, but also integrated the default mode network (the circuits used when our brain is in its ‘resting state’ — i.e., not thinking about anything in particular), producing brain activity that was similar to that of the healthy controls.

Moreover, these new circuits continued to be active after training, with participants continuing to improve.

Previous research has implicated abnormal functioning of the default mode network in other cognitive disorders.

Although it didn’t reach significance, there was a trend suggesting that the level of integration of the default mode network prior to therapy predicted the outcome of the training.

The findings are especially relevant to the many seniors who no longer receive treatment for stroke damage they may have had for many years. They also add to the growing evidence for the importance of the default mode network. Changes in the integration of the default mode network with other circuits have also been implicated in age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.

Interestingly, some research suggests that meditation may help improve the coherence of brainwaves that overlap the default mode network. Meditation, already shown to be helpful for improving concentration and focus, may be of greater benefit for fighting age-related cognitive decline than we realize!

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Genetic cause for word-finding disease

Primary Progressive Aphasia is a little-known form of dementia in which people lose the ability to express themselves and understand speech. People can begin to show symptoms of PPA as early as in their 40's and 50's. A new study has found has discovered a gene mutation in two unrelated families in which nearly all the siblings suffered from PPA. The mutations were not observed in the healthy siblings or in more than 200 controls.

[1164] Hutton, M. L., Graff-Radford N. R., Mesulam M. Marsel, Johnson N., Krefft T. A., Gass J. M., et al. (2007).  Progranulin Mutations in Primary Progressive Aphasia: The PPA1 and PPA3 Families. Arch Neurol. 64(1), 43 - 47.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-01/nu-rdg011507.php

Word substitution mistakes have more to do with speech planning than with thought or attention problems

Why is it that we can look at something, know what it is and still call it by the wrong name? A new study suggests that the problem doesn’t lie in haste or a lack of attention, but rather in a fault in speech planning.

Griffin, Z.M. 2004. The eyes are right when the mouth is wrong. Psychological Science, 15 (12), 814-820.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-12/aps-sot120804.php

What causes word finding failures in young and older adults

Intention memory failures

Latest news

A small study suggests that middle-aged couples are more likely to be effective than older couples in helping fill in each other’s memory gaps, but effective collaboration also depends on conversational style.

In my book on remembering what you’re doing and what you intend to do, I briefly discuss the popular strategy of asking someone to remind you (basically, whether it’s an effective strategy depends on several factors, of which the most important is the reliability of the person doing the reminding). So I was interested to see a pilot study investigating the use of this strategy between couples.

The study confirms earlier findings that the extent to which this strategy is effective depends on how reliable the partner's memory is, but expands on that by tying it to age and conversational style.

The study involved 11 married couples, of whom five were middle-aged (average age 52), and six were older adults (average age 73). Participants completed a range of prospective memory tasks by playing the board game "Virtual Week," which encourages verbal interaction among players about completing real life tasks. For each virtual "day" in the game, participants were asked to perform 10 different prospective memory tasks — four that regularly occur (eg, taking medication with breakfast), four that were different each day (eg, purchasing gasoline for the car), and two being time-check tasks that were not based on the activities of the board game (eg, check lung capacity at two specified times).

Overall, the middle-aged group benefited more from collaboration than the older group. But it was also found that those couples who performed best were those who were more supportive and encouraging of each other.

Collaboration in memory tasks is an interesting activity, because it can be both helpful and hindering. Think about how memory works — by association. You start from some point, and if you’re on a good track, more and more should be revealed as each memory triggers another. If another person keeps interrupting your train, you can be derailed. On the other hand, they might help you fill you in gaps that you need, or even point you to the right track, if you’re on the wrong one.

In this small study, it tended to be the middle-aged couples that filled in the gaps more effectively than the older couples. That probably has a lot to do with memory reliability. So it’s not a big surprise (though useful to be aware of). But what I find more interesting (because it’s less obvious, and more importantly, because it’s more under our control) is this idea that our conversational style affects whether memory collaboration is useful or counterproductive. I look forward to results from a larger study.

[2490] Margrett, J. A., Reese-Melancon C., & Rendell P. G. (2011).  Examining Collaborative Dialogue Among Couples. Zeitschrift für Psychologie / Journal of Psychology. 219, 100 - 107.

Older adults are more likely to forget that they've done something. A new study has found that doing something unusual (such as putting a hand on their head) at the same time helps seniors remember having done the task.

Previous research has shown that older adults are more likely to incorrectly repeat an action in situations where a prospective memory task has become habitual — for example, taking more medication because they’ve forgotten they’ve already taken it. A new study has found that doing something unusual at the same time helps seniors remember having done the task. In the study, older adults told to put a hand on their heads whenever they made a particular response, reduced the level of repetition errors to that of younger adults. It’s suggested that doing something unusual, like knocking on wood or patting yourself on the head, while taking a daily dose of medicine may be an effective strategy to help seniors remember whether they've already taken their daily medications.

Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website

Older people with the 'Alzheimer's gene' find it harder to remember intentions

It has been established that those with a certain allele of a gene called ApoE have a much greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s (those with this allele on both genes have 8 times the risk; those with the allele on one gene have 3 times the risk). Recent studies also suggest that such carriers are also more likely to show signs of deficits in episodic memory – but that these deficits are quite subtle. In the first study to look at prospective memory in seniors with the “Alzheimer’s gene”, involving 32 healthy, dementia-free adults between ages of 60 and 87, researchers found a marked difference in performance between those who had the allele and those who did not. The results suggest an exception to the thinking that ApoE status has only a subtle effect on cognition.

[1276] Driscoll, I., McDaniel M. A., & Guynn M. J. (2005).  Apolipoprotein E and prospective memory in normally aging adults. Neuropsychology. 19(1), 28 - 34.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2005-01/apa-opw011805.php

'Imagination' helps older people remember to comply with medical advice

A new study suggests a way to help older people remember to take medications and follow other medical advice. Researchers found older adults (aged 60 to 81) who spent a few minutes picturing how they would test their blood sugar were 50% more likely to actually do these tests on a regular basis than those who used other memory techniques. Participants were assigned to one of three groups. One group spent one 3-minute session visualizing exactly what they would be doing and where they would be the next day when they were scheduled to test their blood sugar levels. Another group repeatedly recited aloud the instructions for testing their blood. The last group were asked to write a list of pros and cons for testing blood sugar. All participants were asked not to use timers, alarms or other devices. Over 3 weeks, the “imagination” group remembered 76% of the time to test their blood sugar at the right times of the day compared to an average of 46% in the other two groups. They were also far less likely to go an entire day without testing than those in the other two groups.

[473] Liu, L. L., & Park D. C. (2004).  Aging and medical adherence: the use of automatic processes to achieve effortful things. Psychology and Aging. 19(2), 318 - 325.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-06/nioa-ho060104.php

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