The humorist Fred Allen once said, “I always have trouble remembering three things: faces, names and . . . I can’t remember what the third thing is.” The older we get, the more most of us relate to that statement. But, contrary to popular wisdom, memory – at least a certain type – actually may improve with age, says Notre Dame’s Gabriel Radvansky.
When the associate professor of psychology tested college students and senior citizens on reading comprehension, he found, as expected, that the young were superior at recalling specific details. But he was surprised to discover that seniors did as well, if not better, than the college students in remembering the text’s overall meaning. Older adults may miss some of the fine detail, it seems, but they get the big picture just fine.
“If you give people a fable to read and ask them to remember what the fable was later, younger adults will remember the fable,” Radvansky says, “but the older adults will remember the moral. So who remembers the fable better?”
The psychologist has identified three possible explanations for older adults’ superior memory performance: It may be that older adults are more adept at language comprehension because they’ve been practicing it longer. Another possibility is that older adults have acquired more general knowledge and rely on that.
A third explanation, oddly, could be related to physical decline. As a person ages, the frontal lobes of the brain, which control attention, begin to deteriorate. Consequently, Radvansky explains, older adults are less able to suppress irrelevant information and have a harder time staying on track.
“There’s some evidence that older adults make more inferences and hang on to more inferences than younger adults because of this decline in suppression ability,” he says. "So the deficit turns into a benefit. Since older adults are making more inferences, they are building better mental models and therefore retain more about the basic message.
“Ironically, the problem with memory and older adults may not be that they can’t remember, Radvansky observes, “but rather, they remember too much.”
Whether young or old, there is one surefire way to improve memory, according to the psychologist: “Buy a datebook. Paper never forgets and never crashes,” he says. “Your mind has other problems to worry about.”