There’s a comic from The Far Side that shows a student holding his hand up with the caption, “Mr. Osborne, may I be excused? My brain is full.” According to a study on cognitive decline and memory loss from Tubingen University in Germany, our brains really can get “full” and that may just be the reason why aging adults appear to suffer from memory loss and deteriorating mental health as they age.
The report on the myth of memory loss, which was published in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science, found that if a computer was exposed to the same fixed amount of information that a young adult would receive, it operated at normal speeds. But if the same computer was exposed to the same amount of information an older individual might experience over the course of a lifetime, it ran considerably slower, not because of memory loss, but rather because of the wealth of information contained within it.
If you’ve ever had an older computer, you’ve probably experienced this. The more programs and software you add, the slower the computer runs. You can still access all of the programs because the data is all still there, but it just takes longer to get there. The researchers believe that the same logic applies to the myth of memory loss and deteriorating mental health of humans as they get older. It’s not necessarily memory loss we experience, but rather our brains functioning at a slower rate because we have accumulated more memories for it to work through.
Put simply, if you have trouble remembering something, like a friend or family member’s birthday as you get older, this isn’t always because of memory loss; it’s because you likely have many birthdays stored in your memory. While you may be able to easily remember your spouses’ or children’s birthdays, you might have a harder time recalling that cousin or friend you don’t see as often.
The same example happened when the study taught the computers more and more words. They would be able to come up with the correct ones; it would just take them longer as their databases of words grew. The study reckons this is the same for human brains as well. As we grow older and our knowledge base grows, our brains have to sift through information until we find what we are looking for, be it a name, birthday or other memory. This process leads some to believe that they are suffering from memory loss.
But far from suffering memory loss, this in fact shows that adults have a great amount of knowledge; it just takes them longer to retrieve it because of the sheer amount they’re carrying in their brain. In fact, the study showed that not only is the concept of memory loss often a myth, but older adults’ brains can actually be more advanced than younger adults’. Researchers used a cognitive test called paired-associate learning, whereby participants learn to connect two words that go together, like “up” and “down.” The findings revealed that younger adults are better at pairing words that commonly appear close together, like “up” and “down,” but older adults did better at knowing which words don’t belong together, which is something younger adults couldn’t comprehend as well.
The fact that older adults have a better understanding of linguistics, thanks to a lifetime of learning, further shows that they aren’t suffering from memory loss and forgetting the words, so much as they’re suffering from a case of information overload.
The study certainly offers a fresh perspective and important insight into the study of mental health and age-related memory loss. It suggests that instead of assuming memory loss, different cognitive tests are needed for older adults in order to take into account the changes in the way their brain processes information. It isn’t that older adults’ mental health is weaker and that causes memory loss; they have simply just acquired more knowledge over the years.
“Forget about forgetting: Elderly know more, use it better,” Science Daily web site, January 20, 2014; http://goo.gl/qx6ZWB.
Ramscar, M., et al., “The Myth of Cognitive Decline: Non-Linear Dynamics of Lifelong Learning,” Topics in Cognitive Science 2014; 6(1): 5-42.