Health + Wellness

Clutter in the Attic: Why Memory Falters With Age


Imagine a closet filled with treasures accumulated during a lifetime of rich experiences. Now, imagine going into that closet to find one specific object.

Only maybe you get distracted by another, more enticing item from your past. Or you find the object you’re seeking but it’s intertwined with six similar items, and withdrawing the one will drag out the entire tangle.

That’s how an old person’s memory works, a new theory claims.

Seniors struggle with memory not because they have trouble remembering things, but because their minds are too overloaded with a lifetime’s worth of memories.

“There’s this prevalent idea that older adults’ memories are kind of impoverished, or they have weak memories that do not contain a lot of information,” says Tarek Amer, a postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia and Harvard universities, and lead author of a new paper in Trends in Cognitive Sciences that explains this new theory.

“But based on a lot of evidence, we’re actually arguing the opposite. Older adults store too much information, so in a sense, they have a harder time focusing their attention on one piece of target information and exclude all sorts of other distractions,” he adds.

RELATED: Top 10 Myths About Aging

What happens when we try to locate a memory

When anyone attempts to access a memory, their brain quickly sifts through everything stored in it to find the relevant information, Amer and his colleagues write.

Young people don’t have as much prior knowledge tucked away in their brains, so it’s easier for them to find the memory they’re seeking without being distracted by irrelevant recollections.

But older people have to dig through a huge amount of prior knowledge when looking for a specific memory.

It’s more difficult for older folks to suppress irrelevant reminiscences, and they often pull out a gob of other memories that are stuck to the one they sought, according to behavioral and brain imaging studies cited by the researchers.

“If you know five different people with the same first name — five different Johns, for example — and you’re trying to remember the last name for one of the Johns you know, all the different last names will come to mind and essentially interfere with your

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