The Effect of Aging on Memory Retention By Josie Middleton



The older people seem to get, the more stereotypes that tend to get associated with their age. Humorous birthday cards, movies and television shows, and the way that the media chooses to portray with aging adults of course feed this stereotype. One stereotype that is wildly popular is the stereotype that older adults are forgetful, demented, and simply is unable to remember any information given to them. I have seen this multiple times in my grandparents; I will tell them new information about myself and what is going on in my life just to have to retell them in the next conversation because they have completely forgotten what I said to them. This stereotype does hold true to a certain extent, however it is for different reasons then most people think. It is important to keep in mind that even though many adults tend to have working memory decline, there are plenty whom have also shown a working memory that is just as strong in their older age, as it was when they were younger. So why do some adults have memory that lasts as long as they live and others see a major decline in their ability to retain information? Aging adults tend to have lower levels of working memory because of their lack of physical activity in young adulthood, their family’s health history, and because of this stereotype itself.

Every single day, new studies are done on the benefits of having a set workout schedule. It is important to workout a few times a week for a multitude of reasons, however a study done shows that working out may have a great benefit on aging. According to Lautenschlager, Cox, and Flicker (2008) physical activity can significantly help aging adults lessen the chances and the rate of cognitive decline. The researchers found adults aged fifty or older, and individuals whom had family history or had shown signs of mental illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, and proceeded to assign a control group and an independent group. The control group was a group that regularly did not partake in physical activity and in the experiment this group continued what they were doing. The independent group was the group that regularly did not workout however they were put on a 24-week exercise program. All of the participants cognitive levels were examined before the experiment and then again directly after. The researchers found that the adults who did not exercise showed a deterioration of 1.04, which the researchers considered to be significant. However the participants whom took part in the 24 week exercise showed an improvement of .26 points (Lautenschlager, Cox, & Flicker, 2008).

Essentially, the participants who exercised had better memory intake levels than those that did not. How exactly does this fit into the idea that aging adults are forgetful and demented? This study simply goes to show that a good amount of memory retention in adults has to do with how well that adult takes care of himself or herself. Not only did the exercise help to increase their memory abilities, but it also decreased their symptoms relating to Alzheimer’s. Many people will state that old age is inevitable and the mind just deteriorates however studies like this go to refute this stereotype and show the importance of exercise and self care.

An unfortunate truth of aging is that genes shared with a person’s family and their family’s medical history plays a major role in how they will develop with aging. A study conducted by Sliwinski, Hofer, Hall, Buschke, and Lipton (2007) proved that if a family has a long history of dementia or other memory related problems with aging, that the majority of family members would most likely inherit that same disease and show the same deterioration of memory. The experiment picked participants over the age of fifty whom had family members with strong medical histories of memory decline with age. The participants they studied had not yet shown any signs of these same problems. The researchers did a longitudinal study that followed their participants as they aged. They had a group of participants who took part in activities that were supposed to reduce the risk of memory decline, and they had a group of participants whom did not participate in those activities. The end result of the study showed that participants with the strong family medical history still ended up following the path of their family members, despite participating in activities that were supposed to stop this process. The researchers did find that at times, the activities such as exercising helped hold off on the symptoms of cognitive deterioration however in the end if it was passed down through genes, their was nothing that could truly be done to stop it (Sliwinski et al. 2007).

This study does seem to support the stereotype of aging adults having bad memory or being demented. However, many people tend to believe that older adults lose their memory simply because they are old, however this study helps to explain that it isn’t necessarily that the person is old, it has a lot to do with that person’s biological set up. Unfortunately, if a person gains certain genes for certain diseases, they have a high chance of getting those diseases. Some people are diagnosed with them at younger ages and some are diagnosed with them at older ages. It is not necessarily that the person is aging and their mind is slowing down, it depends more on the genes they gained from their parents.

Would it be possible to believe that the stereotype itself that aging adults have bad memory can actually help contribute to older adults having bad memory retention? According to Hess, Hinson, and Hodges (2009) this is completely true. Their research showed that aging adults, whom seemed to be more exposed to the stereotype of adults having bad memory performance, were more likely to show low memory retention abilities. The study took adults ages sixty to eighty who had been highly exposed to these stereotypes and compared them to aging adults whom had not been as highly exposed and then proceeded to test their memory performance levels. The end result found that the aging adults who had been more submersed in the stereotypes had lower levels of memory retention abilities. The researchers stated that this fact might be do to the theory of when people hear something repeatedly, they will begin to believe it. If older adults are constantly around people stating the stereotype, they will eventually be broken down and begin to believe it’s true and will show signs of the stereotype willingly, without realizing they are almost forcing themselves to prove everyone else right (Jost, Bryck, Vogel, & Mayr 2010). It is important for aging adults to be mindful of their aging bodies and minds, and to understand themselves despite what others believe. What they think of themselves and believe of themselves to be true has a major impact in the long run. The aging adult must remain aware of what they are and are not capable of, and not let stereotypes influence how they view themselves. With a more positive mindset and a clear understanding of themselves, they may be better off with their memory retention levels than those who are easily affected by what others believe about their aging mind.

Our bodies and minds are constantly developing and changing throughout the durations of our lives. You simply cannot escape the process of aging. However, even though this stereotype seems to be true, it is important to understand the circumstances surrounding deteriorating memory, such as an individual’s level of physical activity, their family’s health history, and because of their level of belief in the stereotype itself. Many studies have shown that there are multiple activities to partake in now that can benefit in the long run, however aging adults cannot ever escape the process of aging despite all that they do to avoid it. I have seen this with my grandparents, their gradual acceptance of their aging and their realization of the process. Everyone will grow old; everyone’s mind will change and develop, and not be as sharp as it used to be. It is important for them to look at this whole process as a natural part of life, instead of a popular stereotype spoken by people. Yes, you may begin to be more forgetful with your age; however there are multiple benefits to aging that greatly outweigh this small factor.



Hess, T. M., Hinson, H. T., & Hodges, E., A. (2009). Moderators of and mechanisms

underlying stereotype threat effects on older adults’ memory performance. Journal of                            Experimental Aging Research, 35, 288-295. Doi: 2048/10.1080/03610730802716413


Jost, K., Bryck, L., R., Vogel, E., K., & Mayr, U. (2010). Are old adults just like low working

Memory young adults? Filtering efficiency and age differences in visual working

memory. Journal of Cerebral Cortex, 21, 376-386. Doi: 10.1093/bhq185


Lautenschlager, T., N., Cox, L., K., & Flicker, L. (2008). Effect of physical activity on cognitive   function in older adults at risk for Alzheimer disease. Archives of Neurology, 66, 311.        Doi: 2048/10.1001/archneurol.2008.577


Sliwinski, M. J., Hofer, M. S., Hall, C., Buschke, H., & Lipton, B. R. (2007). Modeling memory              decline in older adults: The importance of preclinical dementia, attrition, and      chronological age. Psychology and Aging, 18, 658-671. Doi: 2048/10.1037/0882-    7974.18.4


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