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Aging Memory

Failing memory with age -- social expectation or scientific fact?

by Dr Wendy Parr

Stereotypes of "forgetful" older adults abound, frequently backed up by anecdotal reports. But what do we actually know about how people view differences in memory capability for young and old?

Over the last two to three decades, data provided by the scientific study of psychological aging in relation to our cognitive processes -- our ability to learn, remember, and think -- has resulted in a more optimistic view of human memory and general intellectual competence in older adults than many popular myths and stereotypes of aging would have us believe.

These studies typically compare people aged 65 to 85 years with young adults on a range of cognitive tasks, both laboratory-based and those assumed to be more "ecologically valid". Generally speaking, findings show that many of the age differences found in cognitive performance are relatively small and not likely to affect everyday functioning to any great degree. Recent theories of cognitive aging are similarly positive.

Ageism Abounds

Despite this optimism, empirical work investigating beliefs and attitudes -- how people perceive memory functioning changing with advancing age -- shows that there is the belief that memory ability decreases with increasing age. Recent studies in the US have shown a double standard in memory failure appraisal where, despite a memory failure event being identical apart from the age of the "forgetful" individual, the event was rated as "more serious" or a sign of "mental difficulty" when the person was older relative to ratings given to young people.

Richard Siegert, a lecturer in clinical psychology at Victoria University, and I recently carried out a study with New Zealanders. We investigated 100 young (age 19-30) and 100 older (age 65-90) people's conceptions of memory failures in individuals of different ages and both sexes.

The 200 subjects rated target individuals of 20, 40, 60, and 80 years of age as to how likely it would be that a particular memory-failure event was due to "lack of effort" or "lack of ability". These covered such situations as a target individual arriving at the supermarket only to realise that they cannot remember the intended purchases.

We included subjects and target individuals of both sexes to look at gender effects, used a range of target ages, rather than merely "old" and "young" targets, and manipulated several memory-related variables that the literature suggested may influence what attributions we make when another person's "forgetfulness" is perceived.

We found that age of the "forgetful" target was indeed a predictor of perceived cause of memory difficulties. The double standard is evidenced by both higher lack of ability ratings and lower lack of effort ratings with increasing target age. Put simply, younger people are seen to forget because of a lack of trying, whereas older people are seen to forget because of a deficit in ability.

Use of the graded range of target ages demonstrated the double standard to operate between age groups as young as 20 and 40 years, and to operate more as a continuum than a simple prejudice against the elderly. Of particular interest is the finding that this effect was not only true for older as well as young subjects, but enhanced in the older subjects. This supports suggestions that the perceived unduly negative effect of growing old is self-perpetuating.

Other major findings involved the type of memory event being forgotten and the gender involved.

Memory events were classified temporally -- long-term memory (LTM) and very long-term memory (VLTM) failures. The former involved forgetting something that had happened between 30 minutes and several hours previously, such as the name of a person you have just been introduced to or your shopping list. VLTM failures involved forgetting of well-established, over-learned information, such as a recipe you've been making every week for the last 10 years, or your neighbour's name.

VLTM failures were rated higher on lack of ability than LTM failures at all target ages. Older adults were rated particularly harshly on the VLTM memory failure scenarios, suggesting that such memory failures were indeed more expected in the older targets.

Gender Effects

Our third major area of interest involved gender effects. The study combined age and sex of subject and target. Previous studies of attitudes to aging have given rise to the idea of a double standard of aging in relation to gender, with men but not women differentiating between male and female targets to the disadvantage of the latter.

Contrary to this, our study showed both sexes to rate the opposite sex more harshly than their own sex, giving higher lack of ability ratings to members of the opposite sex.

Further, contrary to findings from some US studies, male subjects were not found to exhibit a stronger youth bias than female subjects. These findings comply with the view that positive evidence for a double standard of aging in relation to gender may be contingent on physical appearance cues, something that would have been minimised in our study of beliefs about cognitive competence.

One thing is clear -- an age-related double standard in the appraisal of memory failures operates in our own culture.

Wendy V. Parr is a lecturer in psychology at Victoria University .