Memory Loss Among Elderly Lower Than Was Originally Thought


The aptitude to recall specific facts deteriorates with age, but other types of memory do not, according to research by the University of the Basque Country.

The study, conducted by Wilma Koutstaal of the University of Minnesota and Alaitz Aizpurua of University of the Basque Country, concludes that the memory of older adults is not as deficient as has been thought until now.

Elderly people remember fewer specific details than younger people and, in general, both groups retain concrete information about events experienced better than abstract information. The main difference is to be found in the capacity to remember more distant facts. Younger people remember them better.

Said Alaitz Aizpurua:

“The highly widespread belief that memory deteriorates as one approaches old age is not completely true. Various pieces of neuro-psychological research and other studies show that cognitive loss starts at the age of 20 but that we hardly notice it because we have sufficient capacity to handle the needs of everyday life.This loss is more perceptible between 45 and 49 and, in general, after the age of 75, approximately.”

Memory deterioration does not appear to be either uniform or general:

“It takes place in certain memory types more than in others.In old age, deterioration appears in episodic memory but not in semantic memory. This type of memory (semantic) and procedural memory are maintained (in some cases they even improve) whereas episodic memory in which detailed memories are retainedis reduced,” said Aizpurua.

Explained the author of the research:

“Procedural memory is the one to do with ‘skills’, the one we need to ‘do things’ (to drive, for example). In general, it is maintained during old age. Semantic memory, on the other hand, is related to language, to the meaning of concepts and to repetitive facts. Whenever we go to a restaurant, for example, we remember the sequence of steps we have to follow: wait until the waiter attends to us and tell him/how many diners there will be; whether we have booked a table, and if so, in whose name; order the dishes, etc. Finally, episodic memory preserves the facts (episodes) of the past in our personal life, and it is more specific in terms of time and space: we can remember, for example, the last time we went to a restaurant, who we sat next to, what we ate, etc.”

Autobiographical Memory

Autobiographical memory forms part of episodic memory and is vital when it comes to planning or predicting our future and well as for our emotional well-being.

In the research, participants were asked to recall three facts from their personal lives:

  • something that happened the previous year (but not in the previous month)
  • something that happened during the previous month, (but not in the previous week)
  • something that happened the previous week (but not on the previous day)

The authors of the research detected certain gaps in the autobiographical memory measurements that have been conducted until now.

“Older and younger people were asked about events that had occurred at a specific moment (the same for both groups), but for the older adults the time interval that had elapsed since the event was much longer. If a young adult is asked about an event in his/her childhood, he/she will have to go back 10 to 15 years; by contrast, an older adult has to go back 40 years or more,” stressed Aizpurua.

Therefore, the researchers changed the interview pattern that had been previously used for studies of this type, and asked older adults and younger ones the same questions. They drew the following conclusion:

“An individual, both an adult and a young person, has the capacity to remember information relating to facts in his/her private life in detail. The main difference between older adults and younger adults is as follows: the younger ones remember more episodic details. Our research shows, however, that this difference only occurred in one of the three sections referred to, in the one involving memories of the previous year; in other words, in that of the oldest recollections. No appreciable differences were found in the recollections of the previous month and the previous week, and the older adults were just as capable as the younger adults in providing episodic details relating to the facts,”

said Aizpurua.

  1. Alaitz Aizpurua, Wilma Koutstaal. A matter of focus: Detailed memory in the intentional autobiographical recall of older and younger adults. Consciousness and Cognition, 2015; 33: 145 DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2014.12.006


“The intricately interwoven role of detailed autobiographical memory in our daily lives and in our imaginative envisioning of the future is increasingly recognized. But how is the detail-rich nature of autobiographical memory best assessed and, in particular, how can possible aging-related differences in autobiographical memory specificity be most effectively evaluated? This study examined whether a modified interview, involving fewer and time-matched events for older and younger adults, yielded age-related outcomes similar to those that have been previously reported.

As in earlier studies, modest age-related changes in the specificity of autobiographical recall were observed, yet the largest most robust effect for both age groups was the substantial proportion of specific details retrieved. Both age groups rated recent memories as significantly less important and as less emotional than more temporally distant events. Our findings counter conceptions of older adults’ autobiographical memories as invariably less episodically rich than those of younger adults.”

Last Updated on January 6, 2024