Is memory loss inevitable with age? Not if older adults are able to hit the “refresh” button in their minds, says recent Brock research.
This occurs when older adults make a clear distinction between one physical location or event and another that immediately follows when they recall information and events, says research conducted by Associate Professor of Psychology Karen Campbell and her PhD student Sarah Henderson.
“In this study, we find that many older adults tend to blur events together in long-term memory, which affects their ability to recall what happened,” says Campbell, Canada Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Aging.
The research centres on ‘event boundaries,’ which is the transition from one context to another. An example would be when someone cooks and eats breakfast in their kitchen, then enters their vehicle and drives to work. The drive to work is stored in memory as a separate event.
According to past research, event boundaries trigger mechanisms in the brain that shape how events are stored in long-term memory, says Campbell.
“In this study, we wanted to explore whether age affects how event boundaries are encoded and the impacts on long-term memory for events,” says Henderson, who is the first author on the study, “Reduced Distinctiveness of Event Boundaries in Older Adults With Poor Memory Performance.”
Henderson, Campbell and their team ran two experiments, one with 24 older and 25 younger adults who participated in the lab, and the other with 51 older and 50 younger adults who participated online.
In the first experiment, participants viewed an eight-minute version of the Alfred Hitchcock movie Bang You’re Dead, with scene changes acting as event boundaries.
Researchers then gave participants two surprise memory tests. One involved viewing a short clip in a single scene and being asked to recall what happened immediately after the clip.
Half of those clips were from the beginning of the scene, and half were at the end of the scene so that participants had to remember the beginning of the next new scene.
The second memory test asked participants to describe what they could recall from the entire eight minutes involving a number of scenes.
Older adults were classified as being ‘high-performing’ and ‘low-performing’ based on how many details of the movie they recalled in the second memory test.
The researchers found that low-performing older adults scored about evenly when asked to recall what happened immediately after a clip that was from the beginning of a scene and a clip from the end of a scene that transitioned into a new scene.
But high-performing older adults, and young adults, were better able to remember what followed a clip at the beginning of the scene than a clip at the end of a scene that led into a new scene.
“Our results showed many older adults are creating less distinct events in memory, which suggests they’re carrying forward information from one scene to another,” says Henderson. “They’re having trouble refreshing their memory at these event boundaries, which might be contributing to why they’re having a hard time remembering specific details because things are kind of all jumbled together.”
In the second experiment, older and younger adult participants viewed a portion of the first episode of the BBC show Sherlock. After a delay, they were asked to recall details of what followed clips from the beginning and end of scenes, similar to the first study.
During the delay, participants performed a separate task that measures memory updating.
Results from the second study supported what researchers found in the first study: younger adults and high-performing older adults showed better recall when tested within an event than across an event boundary compared to low-performing older adults. This ability also related to the separate memory updating task.
Campbell says she and her team are looking into ways that older adults can make better distinctions between events.
“One method that seems promising is having participants rehearse what they just saw at the end of events,” she says.
“Test yourself after you’ve done something – what happened at the party? Who was there? What did you talk about?” she says. “Reminiscing with your friends and family after the fact may actually boost your memory for what you did.”