Thursday, April 11, 2013

No more senior moments

I have three teenage boys.  They are about as forgetful as any human being is capable of being.  They routinely forget all kinds of things ranging from appointments, to chores, to homework assignments.  With the older guys, I used to joke that when they forgot something, they werehaving a senior (in high school) moment.

Of course, the concept of the senior moment is a label that many older people give to the situations in which they forget something.  Most of us assume that our memories are going to get worse as we get older, and so age must be the reason that we forget after the age of 55.

It is true that there is a general cognitive decline starting in your 20s.  And your memory will get a bit worse as you age.  But unless you have suffered brain injury, those declines are not precipitous.  Indeed, there is some evidence that your beliefs about your memory abilities are at least as important to your ability to remember as any changes in brain function.

An interesting study making this point was presented in a paper by Ayanna Thomas and Stacey Dubois in the December, 2011 issue of Psychological Science. 

These researchers took advantage of a strange memory phenomenon known as the Deese Roediger McDermott effect after the researchers who discovered and popularized it in research.  To get a sense of how this effect works, read the following list of words slowly.

butter, food, eat, sandwich, rye, jam, milk, flour, jelly, dough, crust, slice, wine, loaf, toast

Now, close your eyes for a second and remember as many of the words you can.  Without looking back at the list, ask yourself, was the word sandwich on that list?  How about the word bread?  The word sandwich was indeed on the list.  But how about bread?  It actually is not on the list, but about half the people given this list will answer that they saw the word bread. 

Lists like this are constructed by taking 15 words that are highly associated with some other word (in this case, bread).  When you study the list, the words make you think of the associate, and later you act as if you saw that word as well.

Studies show that college students typically mis-remember seeing the associated word about 50% of the time.  The researchers speculated that if older adults are worried that their memories get worse with age, they might be even more likely than that to mis-remember seeing the associated word.

Participants in this study were either older adults (with a mean age of 70) or younger adults (with a mean age of 19).  They began the study by studying several lists of words like the one I just showed you.  After that, half the participants had a paragraph read to them about age-related declines in memory.  The other half had a paragraph read to them about psychology research unrelated to age.  The first group was expected to be more concerned about the effects of age on memory than the second.  Finally, participants saw a number of words and were asked whether they had appeared on the lists they studied.  Several of these words were the associates that were expected to lead to false recognitions.

The younger adults were not affected by hearing about age-related declines in memory.  They responded that they had seen the associated word about 50% of the time regardless of what paragraph they had read to them.  Older adults who heard a paragraph about research in general also said they recognized the associated word about 50% of the time.  However, the older adults who heard about age-related declines in memory said they recognized the associated word about 70% of the time.

The idea is that when older adults are concerned that they are experiencing memory problems, they do not focus as carefully on their knowledge about where they encountered words as they do when they are not worried about their memory.  In actuality, older adults had pretty good memory overall.  They correctly recognized about 85% of the words they had actually studied before and only said that they had seen words that had not been studied about 10% of the time.  So, older adults got worse on the memory test just because of their concern about memory.

These findings are one more reason to stamp the concept of a senior moment out.  As you get older, worrying about declines in memory is far more damaging to your ability to think than any actual declines in memory ability.  So relax.  When you get older, you probably aren’t that much more forgetful than your typical teen.