Aging doesn't always hurt memory. Studies link weaker source memory to frontal-lobe changes that happen only to some people, and suggest a simple remedy

September 09, 2001

Integrating memories with context can help improve later recognition

WASHINGTON -- At the University of Arizona, new psychological research gives hope to people who fear they'll lose their memory as they age. Elizabeth L. Glisky, Ph.D., Susan R. Rubin, M.A. and Patrick S. R. Davidson, M.A. have found that contrary to popular belief, only some people over 65 suffer greater losses in "source (contextual) memory" than in memory for facts and items. The brain's frontal lobes seem to be the culprits, but only some people suffer frontal-lobe impairment as they age. What's more, despite this age-related brain deficit, people may be able to learn to improve their source memory. The findings appear in the September issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

Glisky, Rubin and Davidson conducted four experiments that compared the memory performance of healthy adults over the age of 65 from the Tucson area, with that of college undergraduates (subjects in the four-experiment series numbered 32 older and 24 younger adults in Experiments 1 and 4; and 24 older and 24 younger adults in Experiments 2 and 3). First, they assessed frontal-lobe efficiency with a battery of neuropsychological tests. Then, they studied the association between frontal-lobe strength and efficiency in remembering source (contextual) information, which is harder than storing and retrieving items. Source memory is memory for the broad contextual aspects -- perceptual, spatio-temporal, emotional, social -- surrounding an event, such as who was speaking, or whether you learned something from a book or TV. It's a more demanding mental process than remembering facts because it involves more details and decisions, even as it links these surrounding details to the item or event at their core.

The researchers found that half of their subjects with above-average performance on frontal-lobe tests did not show significant impairments in source memory (as a group). The other half of the sample, with below-average performance, tended to have impaired source memory (as a group). The data revealed that source-memory problems are not an inevitable consequence of aging, as has been widely thought, but rather are a function of frontal-lobe efficiency. The proportion of older adults who experience frontal-lobe decline, at what ages, and to what degree, is unknown at this time. What's clear is this, says Glisky: "The better one's frontal-lobe function, the better the source memory performance." Older adults with good frontal lobe function performed source-memory tasks as well as young adults.

What's more, when researchers required people to consider the relation between an item and its context (source), age differences in memory performance completely disappeared. "It seems important for older adults to try to integrate several aspects of an experience in order to remember the experience as a whole," says Glisky. "For example, it's not enough to remember your car and that you parked it somewhere in the shopping-mall parking lot. It's important to attend specifically to the relation between your car and its location in the parking lot. Older people may have to make a specific effort to encode these relations in order to remember them later." In short, source memory problems may happen only to a subgroup of older adults who are aging cognitively in different ways, and even then, they can be helped to learn to remember the context better.
Article: "Source Memory in Older Adults: An Encoding or Retrieval Problem?" Elizabeth L. Glisky, Ph.D., Susan R. Rubin, M.A., and Patrick S. R. Davidson, M.A., University of Arizona, Tucson; Journal of Experimental Psychology - Learning, Memory, and Cognition, Vol 27. No.5

Elizabeth L. Glisky can be reached by email at or by phone at 520- 621-9289.

(Full text of the article is available from the APA Public Affairs Office and at )

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 155,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 53 divisions of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

American Psychological Association

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