Memory problems are a ripe area of research as investigators struggle to separate characteristics of normal aging from impending Alzheimer’s.
The stakes are high as 10,000 baby boomers reach the age of 65 each day — a demographic transition that began in 2011 and will continue for the next 19 years.
In a new study, University of Michigan researchers discover memory problems experienced in the real world are often different from that found in laboratory research. As such, they believe new brain-training programs can target the memory problems people experience in daily life.
During the investigation of 105 healthy, highly-educated older adults (ages 65-92) researchers learned the inability to retrieve a word that is on the “tip-of-your-tongue” is common, occurring among 61 percent of the subjects.
Moreover, after the study’s participants completed a checklist of the memory errors made in the last 24 hours, researchers determined about half of the errors may be related to absent-mindedness. For example, having to re-read a sentence because they forgot what it said, or forgetting where they placed an item.
Investigators believe the findings, which appear in the journal Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, may help brain-training programs target the memory problems people experience in daily life.
“Right now, many training programs focus on the age differences in memory and thinking that we see in laboratory studies,” said Dr. Cindy Lustig, U-M psychology professor and the study’s senior author. “However, those may not translate to the performance failures that are most common in everyday life.”
When people are tested in the lab and have nothing to rely on but their own memories, young adults typically do better than older adults, she said.
Remarkably, when the same studies are conducted in real-world settings, older adults sometimes outperform young adults at things like remember appointments or when to take medicines.
This occurs because elders have learned to incorporate memory supports, such as calendars, lists and alarms into their daily routine.
“When we looked at how people performed on standard laboratory tests, we found the usual age differences,” she said. “People in their 80s and 90s performed worse than those in their 60s and early 70s.”
No increase in daily memory errors was found based on age. Meanwhile, researchers hope that a better understanding of the errors people are still making can improve training program efforts.
“We wanted to identify which errors still occur despite changes people might be making in their environment and routine,” Lustig said. “That’s where it may be especially important to change the person.”
Lustig cautioned that an elderly person occasionally forgetting a name does not mean he’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias.
“Everybody forgets,” she said. “However, our findings suggest that certain types of memory errors may be especially important to monitor for increases, which then should be discussed with a clinician.”
Lustig said future research should identify how people change their lives to avoid errors. If people restrict their activities to avoid memory errors, it could affect their independence.
Source: University of Michigan