As we get older, many of us struggle with memory. Generally, older people do worse at memory tests than younger folks. But older people have more experience and know more than younger people. The conflict between these two facts has always confused scientists. But, new research shows that the reason might be that older people know so much they suffer from “clutter.”
People often think that memory degrades as we grow older, even if we don’t suffer from a memory problem like dementia. They call this phenomenon “impoverished memories,” where information seems to fade from your memories. However, the new study suggests the opposite is true.
“Older adults might actually be forming too many associations between information,” said Tarek Amer, a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia and Harvard Universities and the first author. “It’s not that older adults don’t have enough space to store information. There’s just too much information that’s interfering with whatever they’re trying to remember.”
The theory is that older brains may have a problem suppressing unimportant information rather than remembering key things. One example the researchers gave is knowing the location of a favorite restaurant after it moves. For younger people, it can be easy to update the address mentally because they don’t have as many memories of the old location. For an older person, there are so many memories associated with the old spot that it’s harder to drag the new address to the forefront of their mind.
“Clutter can be bad in certain situations, but there can be treasure in the clutter depending on the kind of tasks that you’re engaged in,” Dr. Amer said. “It really depends on the context.”
No one wants to forget the details of their childhood memories. It’s nice that this “clutter” exists. But, the problem is remembering where your keys currently are when you have a thousand memories of putting them down all around your house.
“If you sometimes over-rely on this accumulated knowledge when you need to encode or remember new information, then that can provide a disadvantage,” Dr. Amer said.
You need to make an effort to help your brain sort through the clutter. Cardiovascular health impacts memory health. Getting plenty of physical exercise can help you separate your older memories from your newly formed thoughts. And staying mentally engaged with new activities enables you to build new solid memories. Taking classes or learning new skills can help you stay intellectually sharp and let your brain shift clutter from knowledge more easily.
“The point is essentially challenging yourself… physically or mentally,” Dr. Amer said. “That is probably the best way to reduce clutter and be able to ignore irrelevant information that produces this clutter in memory.”
This research might bring comfort to people who wonder if their memory is “going.” It’s great to hear that there are practical ways to improve apparent forgetfulness as we age!