Memory is typically viewed as a skill that declines with aging, with studies showing that older adults have greater susceptibility to forgetting new information, and have higher distractibility in learning tasks, than younger adults. Some studies have suggested, however, that some cognitive changes that occur with aging are better seen as shifts rather than decline. For instance, in experimental studies on memory that involve intentional distraction by the experimenters, older adults show greater skill than younger adults at remembering, and drawing inferences from, the distractions, using this information to improve their performance on the experimental task. A forthcoming article in Psychological Science reports on experiments that demonstrated that the ability to process distractions can be used to reduce age-related forgetting.
In the experiments, a group of younger adults and a group of older adults were provided a list of 20 words and given two tests to recall these words, once immediately after reading the list, and again after a 15-minute delay. During the delay, participants were shown a stream of pictures with superimposed words that they were asked to ignore. Ten words from the initial 20-item list were repeated in the pictures. Participants were then asked to recall as many of the initial 20 words as they could over a period of 45 seconds. While there were no significant differences in forgetting between the repeated and unrepeated words among the younger adults, older adults recalled 30 percent more of the repeated words than the unrepeated words, recalling about the same number of repeated words as the younger group did. These findings suggest that so-called implicit rehearsal of information (i.e., reminders that do not require specific conscious attention) may be a useful strategy to improve memory among older adults, in contrast to existing memory interventions (such as intentional mnemonic exercises) that are based on strategies used by younger adults.