memory: bright old things as good as young ones

The idea that memory falters with advancing age has been dealt a blow by a new study showing that healthy, intelligent people in their late 70s are just as good as 18-year-olds at recalling material they have read.

Youth or advanced age make no difference when people are tested for their recall of mentally demanding and unfamiliar reading material, the study found.

“We found that the memory of older people aged 63 to 78 years was virtually the same as young adults aged 18 to 27 years in a series of reading recall tests,” says UNSW psychology student, Ms Laura Haynes, who did the research for her honours thesis.

Ms Haynes has just won a prestigious double scholarship worth almost $400,000 over three years to continue with doctoral research at Cambridge University, in Britain (see details below).

“It seems reasonable to interpret these findings as another good reason for staying fit and healthy as you age: apart from the physical benefits, it would seem that you stay healthy in mind as well,” she says.

While some research seems to confirm that older people have more problems with what is known as “prospective memory” – that is, remembering to do something in the future – Ms Haynes questions the validity of other studies suggesting that they have trouble remembering written material.

“Some studies have shown the apparent inability of older people to remember nonsense syllables and random sequences of digits but you’ve got to wonder how those results apply to everyday life situations.”

Supervised by Dr Peter Birrell, of the UNSW School of Psychology, Ms Haynes tested 64 people evenly divided between the two age groups and selected for their good health and ability to perform better than average in verbal IQ tests. Older people were recruited from book clubs and bridge clubs.

“We screened out people who’d had conditions – such as stroke, dementia, high blood pressure or brain trauma – that contribute to memory loss,” she says.

“Also, we only accepted very bright people from the top 16 percent IQ group. We did that because it made it easier to attribute any differences in memory performance between the two groups to ageing, rather than other cognitive factors.

“Therefore, these particular findings don’t apply to everyone – only apply to more intelligent older people with a clean bill of neurological health.”

The two groups were asked to read two 400-word passages of material that dealt with a familiar incident – the September 2001 terror attacks on New York and an unfamiliar one – an obscure incident in the Japanese parliament.

Ms Haynes says the passages were not chosen at random but painstakingly constructed, word-by-word, for their relevance to testing recall and memory according to published research on the subject.

About Laura Haynes

Laura Haynes is 26 and grew up in French’s Forest in Sydney. She started a degree in engineering at Sydney University but switched to psychology because she was “more interested in people than in machines”.

She began her psychology studies at Griffith University, in Queensland, but says she was attracted to UNSW School of Psychology because of its outstanding reputation, especially in neuroscience.

“I’m so glad I came here because of the quality of the staff and the work done here, and I could not have got anywhere else the opportunities UNSW has given me. It has been a fantastic experience.”

She will graduate with Bachelor of Psychology (Honours) degree. Ms Haynes has won an Overseas Research Student (ORS) award from the British Government, which provides partial remission of tuition fees for international graduate students of outstanding merit and research potential. Only eight ORSs were awarded for psychology students in the UK in 2004.

She was also awarded the Poynton Cambridge Australia Trust Award. Only two Poynton scholarships are awarded annually.

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