Older adulthood is a time that is perceived to be a period of cognitive decline. This cognitive decline is an umbrella term encompassing the symptom of forgetfulness which is a common stereotype places on older adults. This stereotype is not necessarily true. However, many older adults do fall victim to prejudice and discrimination due to being labeled as forgetful. Recent studies explored the chemistry and biology of the older brain to see if older adults are more forgetful as they age, or if it is simply a common stereotype rooted in social expectation.
The first study conducted was by Mol, Ruiter, Verhey, Dijkistra, and Jolles in 2008. This study looked at older adults who perceived themselves to be forgetful. Data was gathered through questionnaires to see what other variables correlate with perceived forgetfulness that could cause or be treated as a separate issue to resolve the perception of forgetfulness (Mol et. al., 2008). There were 300 participants involved, all whom were over 54 years old and perceived themselves as forgetful (Mol et. al., 2008). The study was a cross-sectional design conducted through self-report questionnaires (Mol et. al., 2008). The independent variables were the other issues the questionnaire tested for: behavior leading to forgetfulness, fear of dementia, memory-related anxiety, memory self-efficacy, memory monitoring, attitude, social norm, social support, societal beliefs, and knowledge of memory (Mol et. al., 2008). The dependent variable was perceived forgetfulness.
The results of this study found that forgetfulness was correlated with low self-efficacy, high memory-related anxiety, a negative attitude, and a high subjective norm (Mol et. al., 2008). The study also found that with an increased age, there was a higher level of perceived forgetfulness (Mol et. al., 2008). The results found that, even with intervention, the root cause of forgetfulness was not necessarily cognitive decline in old age, but rather, being the target determinants of perceived forgetfulness (Mol et. al., 2008). This means older adults are not more forgetful than their younger counterparts. Older adults may simply need to address the anxiety and expectations they have of forgetfulness and memory decline through self-esteem interventions.
Another study that examined the process of memory loss in older adulthood was conducted by Leal, Noche, Murray, and Yassa in 2016, which looked at the age-related variability in memory tasks in older adults in congruency with the amygdala-hippocampal functioning (Leal et. al., 2016). The purpose of the study was to observe the memory functioning in older adults through fMRI scans while having the older adults perform memory tasks in order to physically observe the hippocampus and amygdala as the brain processed memory information that was associated with emotions as well as memory information that was not (Leal et. al., 2016). There were 27 participants whose ages ranged from 60 to 91, and they were initially screened against substance abuse history or medical and psychological morbidities (Leal et. al., 2016). This study was a task-sampling behavioral observation study. There was not a dependent or independent variable because the study was observing the biology of the brain after a task was performed. The study concluded that memory impairments do exist in old age, but information was processed differently if there was an emotion involved in the memory processing (Leal et. al., 2016). The hippocampus and amygdala process was altered in old age as their sizes decreased and the route of processing was altered.
This study was influential in observing the stereotype of forgetful older adults. They concluded there were anatomical alterations in the structures of the brain that dealt with memory processing. The hippocampus and the amygdala suffered deterioration and a decrease in synaptic plasticity (Leal et. al., 2016). However, these older adults could compensate for this loss through emotional memories. For an unknown reason, which should be further researched, emotion in memory processing compensated for the general decline they found. However, the levels of these two observations varied based on the individual. So, this means that memory processing is still unique to specific individuals and can potentially be battled or overcome by incorporating emotions into memories to make memorization easier for the older adult.
The next study concerning this topic of forgetfulness in old age was done by Padgaonkar, Zanto, Bollinger, and Gazzaley in 2017 on the working memory of older adults in comparison to younger adults involving predictive cues. The purpose of this study was to observe whether certain types of predictive information would aid the short term memory of older adults (Padgaonkar et. al, 2017). The study consisted of twenty young adults, who were a mean age of 25 years old, as well as twenty-one older adults, who were a mean age of 72 years old (Padgaonkar et. al., 2017). The method of this study was a laboratory test. The participants were administered tests and were asked to memorize different information presented to them with different predictive cues. The independent variable was the use of predictive cues, and the dependent variable was the level of memorization. The conclusion of the study was that when older adults were given predictive cues regarding when to expect stimuli and what the content would be, they were able to ignore irrelevant information, and therefore, their memories were comparable to those of the younger population (Padgaonkar et. al., 2017).
This study presents the idea that as people age, their cognitive abilities decline because they are not able to block-out other stimuli that is irrelevant; this makes memorization a more challenging task for older adults. However, this study proves that older adults do not have to be labeled as hopelessly forgetful. There are ways to midigate these biological and psychological reasons for decline. Predictive cues, or in other words telling the older adult what to pay specific attention to, can aid their memory. With this consideration, they will perform memory tasks at a similar level as someone who is much younger.
The final study for this paper that looked at forgetfulness in old age was done by O’Shea, Cohen, Porges, Nissim, and Woods in 2016. The purpose of their study was to look at the hippocampus in older adults to study the volume of a disease-free hippocampus in older adults. The study was done with 93 older adults who were screened against disease and had their brains scanned with an MRI machine. Recordings were made of their hippocampal volume through observing fluid cognition scores while also recording for observed declines in the subdomains of episodic memory, working memory, processing speed, and executive function (O’Shea et. al., 2016). The method of this study was a structured observation, with no independent or dependent variables. The study concluded that lower hippocampal volume was associated with declines in all of the subdomains (O’Shea et. al., 2016).
The study found the hippocampus to be critical in the process of cognitive aging. It suggested that observed declines in hippocampal volume could result in cognitive decline, and therefore predict cognitive decline in memory. However, more research needs to be done on possible interventions and reasons for this process of decline. This supports the idea that older adults are subject to declines and changes, but with research and knowledge, there may be ways to predict and intervene for the sake of memory and cognitive health in old age.
Old age is often associated with forgetfulness, and this stereotype causes them to accept the decline as inevitable. There are definitive biological and psychological declines in old age, which can affect memory. However, by teaching self-esteem, giving positive reinforcement, predictive cues, integrating emotion, and studying the brain, scientists have uncovered more ways memory can be maximized later in life, and provide hope for memories of the future.
Leal, L. S., Noche, A. J., Murray, A. E., and Yassa. A. M. (2016). Age-related individual variability in memory performance is associated with amygdala-hippocampal circuit function and emotional pattern separation. Neurobiology of Aging, 49, 9-19. DOI: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2016.08.018
Martine E. M. Mol, Robert A.C. Ruiter , Frans R.J. Verhey , Jeanette Dijkstra & Jelle Jolles (2008). A study into the psychosocial determinants of perceived forgetfulness: implications for future interventions. Aging & Mental Health. 12:2, 167-176. DOI:10.1080/13607860801972503
O’Shea, A., Cohen, A. R., Porges, C. E., Nissim, R. N., and Woods, J. A. (2016). Cognitive aging and the hippocampus in older adults. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 8:298, DOI:10.3389/fnagi.2016.00298
Padgaonkar, A. N., Zanto, P. T., Bollinger, J., and Gazzaley, A. (2017). Predictive cues and age- related declines in working memory performance. Neurobiology of Aging, 49, 31-39.DOI: 10.1016/j.neurobiolaging.2016.09.002