How Memory Changes with Age

By American Geriatrics Society (AGS), Health in Aging Foundation

The American Psychology Association has summarized the consistent memory change patterns that researchers identify in normal older adults compared to younger counterparts in the following categories:

  • Episodic (what did I eat for supper last night?)
  • Source (who told me that I should see that new movie?)
  • Flashbulb (where were you when President Kennedy was shot?)
  • Semantic (fact information)
  • Procedural (“after you learn to ride a bike, you never forget”)

Episodic, source, and flashbulb memory decline the most with age, and semantic and procedural the least. Although these patterns have emerged through studies of healthy seniors, researchers emphasize that these changes show very different rates of decline and vary greatly among individual people. So what may be noticeable in Fred may not be an issue at all for George. Remember, everyone is unique, and aging changes in memory are no exception.

As people age, their storage room for memories doesn’t fill up as though they have only so much capacity available. Instead, memory changes seem to center in how people encode memories for storage and then retrieve the memories they’ve stored. Distraction from a memory task, such as because of a phone call, impacts encoding ability more. Slower retrieval processing may make it harder to remember names or dates. Despite these subtle changes, most older people are still able to competently take in new information, encode it, store it in long-term memory, and retrieve it when needed.

Middle-aged folks may start to notice memory changes, but their sensitivity about such changes is worsened by society’s constant comparison of everyone to the young as the pinnacle for mental ability. Researchers suggest that when identifying what is normal for a certain age, comparing yourself to healthy, age-matched peers is much more realistic and meaningful than comparing yourself to someone many years younger.