LEARNING AND MEMORY
Most persons experience a modest increase in memory problems as they get older, particularly with regard to the ability to remember relatively recent experiences. Decrements are found both in the ability to accumulate new information and in the ability to retrieve existing information from memory storage, although there is little decline in the ability to store new information once it is learned.
The process of learning new information and encoding it for storage requires more time as individuals get older, because of the reduced efficiency of neural transmission and because of sensory deficits that limit one’s ability to quickly and accurately perceive information to be learned (as discussed above). In fast-moving day-to-day experiences, this may prevent individual experiences (e.g., the name of someone to whom one is introduced) from receiving the attention needed for complete encoding into secondary memory. In addition, the extensive life experience of older persons makes it more likely that new information will not adequately be distinguishable from previous learning (e.g., the names of other similar people one has met over the years), making it difficult to establish unique cues and linkages for new experiences.
Older persons also experience decrements in their ability to retrieve information once it is stored. In part, this is because of the difficulty identifying just the right piece of information from the vast store of information they have accumulated over a lifetime of experiences. This can be particularly difficult when the new information resembles previously learned information ( d.g.,when one is trying to recall a phone number from the thousands of phone numbers that have been learned over a lifetime). Consequently, older persons tend to do considerably worse than younger persons on tests of free recall, where they are asked to retrieve learned information but given only minimal cues. However, few decrements are found when older adults are given sufficient orienting parameters to limit the scope of the search, or are asked to select the correct answer from among a small number of options (e.g., on a multiple choice test).
Older persons seem to have a better memory for certain events that occurred in the distant past than for recent experiences. To a larger extent, this is because the distant events that are remembered are those which either have special personal significance (e.g., the birth of a child, the end of ‘world War II) or are so unique that they are not affected by subsequent experiences, ( e.g., childhood occurrences). Such experiences are apt to have been rehearsed mentally numerous times throughout one’s life, increasing their familiarity and making them easier to recall than are mundane aspects of one’s day-to-day life.
Finally, it is important to note that cognitive processes such as learning, memory, and intellectual functioning are extremely responsive to a person’s physical and psychological state. Physical illnesses and medications can affect neuronal function and also reduce the energy available for cognitive processes. Depression and other emotional conditions that involve impaired self-esteem and reduced confidence in one’s own abilities can significantly impair one’s motivation for learning and remembering new information. Among depressed older adults, for example, memory complaints can increase and memory performance can decline even in persons who do not have any actual impairment in cognitive functioning or learning ability. Moreover, older adults who have adopted the popular stereotype that forgetfulness is inevitable in old age may experience increased anxiety and reduced self-confidence when confronted with normal memory tasks resulting in memory problems that would not otherwise have had.