Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices

How memory serves young, old differently Add to ...

They were both describing an important meal they had once eaten.

The young woman remembered she was wearing a grey shirt and jeans and that her date, whom she described only as a "big guy," ordered pizza with eggplant on it. The older women talked about Friday night dinners with her sister's extended family and of closeness she felt and how precious the ritual was to her.

New Canadian research shows there is a difference in how memory works in young people and their elders.

"Younger people are good on detail. Older people are good on underlying meaning," said Brian Levine, an associate professor at the University of Toronto who works at the Rotman Research Institute at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care.

He recently published the results of an experiment in which he asked 15 adults under the age of 34 and 15 over 65 to remember significant moments in their lives. The young people could remember details more easily, such as what they wore, what they ate, where they went and the time of day.

The old people were better at drawing connections between events or putting them in the context of a lifetime of experiences.

The differences held when both groups were asked to describe an event from the previous year.

Much of the research that has been done on memory in the elderly has focused on tasks they tend not to be good at, such as remembering specific details.

But some experiments have suggested that while our ability to remember events changes over time, those changes are not all bad. A 1997 study asked younger and older adults to read Sufi parables, Muslim fables that were unfamiliar to them. The younger adults excelled at the details of the stories, while older adults were better at extracting the message.

"I think if you ask old people to do what they are good at, they excel; if [you]ask them to do what they are bad at, they look impaired," Dr. Levine said in a recent interview.

In his experiment, which he carried out with doctoral student Eva Svoboda, the young and old people were asked to recall important events from childhood, adolescence, early adulthood and middle age, plus as an event from the previous year. It had to be something they had experienced personally.

The young people obviously did not have memories from middle age, so they picked two from early adulthood. They could choose any incident they wished and as a prompt were given a list of typical life events, such as birthdays, holidays or seeing someone famous.

The results showed that the old people clearly remembered events in a different way than the young.

Dr. Levine said previous research has shown that the brain does change with age, especially the frontal lobes, which are involved in retrieving memories and sorting them. People with damage to their frontal lobes caused by stroke, dementia or traumatic injuries have difficult retrieving memories. One patient with dementia knows she was once a corporate trainer and can talk in general about her former job and the material she delivered. But she cannot remember a single detail about any of the hundreds of training sessions she held.

It may be that a much less severe difficulty in retrieving detailed memories is a natural consequence of aging, Dr. Levine said. He stressed he is talking about subtle changes to the brain.

"I don't want people to think they have brain damage."

There is a debate among scientists over whether these changes are helpful or hurtful to an individual or a group of people, in an evolutionary context.

"If you think about the roles that younger and older adults play in society, especially in a hunter-gatherer situation where we evolved, it's more important for the younger ones to remember specific details related to activities where their physical ability is necessary, such as which way the bison went," he said.

"Older adults may not be as fleet of foot, so they have less need for the details. But they have accumulated knowledge -- call it wisdom -- that the younger adults need to guide their decisions, such as knowing where bison are most likely to congregate at a certain time of year."

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @AnneMcIlroy

 

Next story

loading

Trending

loading

Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular