Study: Young and Old Remember Differently

Think back to your first kiss and try to remember exactly what happened.

If you remember precisely what your sweetheart was wearing, where you were when you puckered up for the first time, whether your friend swooned or giggled, and other specific details associated with the event, chances are you're still pretty young.

If you can't remember how either of you were dressed, but you can recall clearly what that relationship really amounted to, and what else was going on in your life at the time, and whether the United States was at war, chances are you're an old fuddy duddy.

At least that's the implication of findings by Canadian researchers who are studying how our memories change with age.

Young people are better at recalling details, according to the study. But seniors are just as good, and maybe even better, at putting their memories in the right context and adding perspective as they flesh out the details and create a broader picture.

A Notable Distinction in Remembering

"We asked older and younger people to tell us about things that happened in their lives and we found that there were large differences in the way they talked about their past," says neuropsychologist Brian Levine of The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care and the University of Toronto.

"Younger adults tended to focus on specific details, the unfolding of the story, the sensory and perceptual information, what thoughts and feelings they might have had at the time of the event," he says.

"Older adults also talked about that sort of information," says Levine. "But they tended to include less detail and more general factual information that doesn't so much relate to the specific event but relates to extended knowledge, the significance of that event in their life, and other facts that might apply to more than one event.

"We found two very distinct styles of talking about past events."

Wisdom of the Aged

The study suggests that despite the fact that we lose some of our ability to recall details as we age, we gain in our ability to add depth and perception, possibly because we have adapted to a world that has changed greatly during our lifetime.

"That's the whole idea of wisdom," Levine says. "Older adults don't need to focus on the details as much. They are focused more on the general patterns that are helpful in decision making, which is probably why they have positions of responsibility.

"Their memory is different. If the goal is to remember exactly what happened, they are not going to do as well as younger adults. But that's not always the most important goal."

The Study in Detail

Levine and doctoral candidate Eva Svoboda studied 15 healthy younger adults, aged 19-34, and 15 healthy older adults, aged 66-89. That's not a large sample, Levine admits, but he says he feels comfortable with the results partly because other research projects have reached similar conclusions.

Levine's study is in the December issue of Psychology and Aging, published by the American Psychological Association.

Participants were asked to choose events from five periods of their lives, ranging from early childhood to the previous year, and recall as many details about the event as possible. In addition, the participants were prodded by the researchers to stimulate the memory process, and the results were evaluated and tabulated.

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