August 31, 2010

UK: Older people remember what they said but not who they said it to

LONDON, England / The Telegraph / Elder Health / August 31, 2010

Older people forget who they have just spoken to because the effort of talking consumes so much of their dwindling mental resources.

By Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent

Research has shown that pensioners lose their memory for places and people because they are concentrating so hard on the content of their conversation. This "destination memory" suffers at the expense of the "communication memory" because as you get older powers of concentration reduce and you can only focus on one thing at a time.

Same old story? Photo: ALAMY

The study by Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute which is affiliated to the University of Toronto, Canada, appears in the Online First Section of Psychology and Ageing.

"What we've found is that older adults tend to experience more destination amnesia than younger adults," said lead investigator and cognitive scientist Dr Nigel Gopie, who led the study.

"Destination amnesia is characterised by falsely believing you've told someone something, such as believing you've told your daughter about needing a ride to an appointment, when you actually had told a neighbour."

Why are older adults more prone to destination memory failures? The ability to focus and pay attention declines with age, so older adults use up most of their attentional resources on the telling of information and don't properly encode the context (who they are speaking to) for later recall.

The false belief that they have told someone something also increases the tendency for the elderly to repeat themselves, the latest research shows.

But the memory faux pas can lead to awkward or embarrassing social situations and even miscommunication in the doctor's surgery even though after making these memory errors older adults remain highly confident in their false beliefs.

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