Research on memory is parsing out the precise differences between youths and the elderly. PHOTO: TerriersFan, CC License
The difference between the memories of young people and old people isn’t simply that younger memories are better, according to a study in Attention, Perception and Psychophysics. In fact in some ways, the memories of the elderly are equal to their younger counterparts. Where young people have an advantage is not in how many items they can remember off a list, but how detailed the picture is. In fact, the difference is similar to the difference in televisions from their respective eras: they show the same scene, but younger people remember in high definition.
"Further analysis of this current dataset and other studies from our laboratory suggest that older adults retrieve memories differently than younger adults,” said study author Phillip Ko. “Second, there is emerging evidence from other labs suggesting that the quality of older adults' memories is poorer than younger adults. In other words, while older adults might store the same number of items, their memory of each item is 'fuzzier' than that of younger adults.”
Ko’s study had a group of seniors, 67 and older, and a group of youths averaging 23 years of age perform a cognitive task. Two, three or four colored dots flashed on a screen, then those disappeared and were replaced by a single dot. The challenge was to say if the single dot matched the color of any of the other dots. While the older group would be expected to match younger people on a task like repeating back a string of numbers (or items on a grocery list, for a real life example), the younger group performed better on the dots test.
Ko believes these results suggest that the elderly “have much lower-resolution memory than do younger adults.”
With the growing popularity of brain exercises offered by apps like Lumosity, perhaps Ko’s research can be used to help people keep their memories from getting fuzzy edges as they age.