Wednesday, January 29, 2014

An Aging Brain Is Still Pretty Smart

It may be slower, but it has a wealth of information to draw from.

New research says older people are slow on memory tests because they have more mental data to search for the answer.  

A few years ago, Michael Ramscar, a linguistics researcher at the University of Tübingen in Germany, came across a paper saying that cognitive decline starts as early as age 45. He was 45 himself and felt he hadn't yet peaked. He remembers thinking: "That doesn't make sense to me; 99 percent of the people I look up to intellectually, who keep me on my mettle, are older than I am."

The paper concluded that a person's vocabulary declines after age 45, and that finding really made no sense to him. The researchers were trying to measure how quickly people remembered words, he says, without even considering the quantity of words they had stored in memory.

Ramscar began to wonder who has the better memory: the young person who knows a little and remembers all of it, or the older person who has learned a lot and forgets a little of it?

His research, published in the January 2014 issue of Topics in Cognitive Science, argues that studies on memory ask the wrong questions. It could be that older, wiser heads are so chock full of knowledge that it simply takes longer to retrieve the right bits. (It's important to note that the research is aimed at healthy, aging brains, not those afflicted with Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia, which rob the brain of memory and other abilities.)

Many memory tests might ask a 20-year-old and a 70-year-old to memorize a list of items, then recall them. The tests don't address the size and content of each subject's existing memory. So Ramscar created computer models simulating young brains and older brains. He fed information into both models but added buckets more information to the model meant to simulate an older brain.

"I could see precious little evidence of decline in [the models of] healthy, older people," he says. "Their slowness and slight forgetfulness were exactly what I'd expect" because with more to draw on, there are more places to search, and there's more information to search through to find an answer.

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