Use it or lose it: Could this be the key to memory maintenance? “The Whistle” (11/21/99)

Use it or lose it: Could this be the key to memory maintenance?

(By Amanda Hainsworth, Institute Communications and Public Affairs)


Many people believe it’s inevitable that their memory will worsen as they grow older, but there may be ways of maintaining an effective, well functioning memory as you age, according to Georgia Tech’s Christopher Hertzog, professor of psychology.

Hertzog’s research on memory and aging is attempting to understand how much variation there is between people as they age and the causes of those differences.

He was recently selected by the National Advisory Council on Aging to receive a MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) Award of the National Institutes of Health.  The award, which provides long-term support to outstanding, experienced investigators, recognizes Hertzog’s record of scientific achievements as a principal investigator on research projects funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA).

MERIT awards are initiated by the NIA and by the National Advisory council on Aging.  The researcher does not apply for the award.

Since 1990, the percentage of Americans aged 65 and over has more than tripled, and in 1997, they made up 12.7 percent of the population.  According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the older population will grow significantly between 2010 and 2030 when the baby boomer generation reaches age 65.

People aged 65 and over are projected to represent 13 percent of the population next year, but by 2030, they will account for 20 percent of Americans.

A person’s memory can decline by as much as 40 percent between the ages of 25 and 65.  The most dramatic changes associated with normal aging involve the working memory, active thinking that involves processing, storing and recalling things, and episodic memory, recalling a past experience.  The effects of degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s Disease, are more profound but much less common.

Hertzog said one of the challenges of researching the progress and impact of aging is that there is no experimental control over the aging process and how fast it happens.  “We can only watch it happen over time, or we can compare older people with younger people,” he said.

Hertzog believes that individual differences in effects of aging on memory almost certainly exist.  People differ in how much memory change they will experience as they grow older.  “But there’s little conclusive proof because it is so difficult to measure the effects.”

Some of the first definitive evidence of differential rates of change in aging is presented in Memory Change in the Aged, a recently published book which Hertzog co-authored with David Hultsch and other colleagues from the Victoria Longitudinal Study, as well as other reports from that project.  They were able to show that people differ in their rates of memory change in old age.

“We’ve also identified some evidence that if an older person exercises his or her mind, their memory may decline less in old age,” he said.  Self-reported intellectual activities are associated with lower rates of change in memory.

The evidence is consistent with the adage, “use it or lose it.”  “Being socially active by itself has little effect.  Stimulating intellectual activity is what matters, even if it is something as seemingly simple as reading, solving crossword puzzles or playing bridge.”

However, researchers in the field face a “chicken and egg” problem. Although continuing regular intellectual activity may have protective benefits, the evidence in the Victoria Longitudinal Study can also be interpreted differently.

As Hertzog said, “Another possibility is that older people, as they begin to experience declines in cognitive functioning, cease what they consider to be their more demanding intellectual activities.”

With his current NIA-funded project, Hertzog is collaborating with John Dunlosky, assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.  They are aiming to develop a unique training program for older adults that restructures negative beliefs about age and learning, while teaching them strategies for learning and for self-testing during learning.  This research could also provide valuable information on how to construct training and intervention programs to help older adults optimize learning in everyday situations.

They are particularly interested in ways in which older people can protect or improve the functioning of their memory.  “There’s no doubt that older, healthy people in general perform worse than younger people on memory testing.  There is a cognitive decline.  But an older person’s ability to monitor their own performance doesn’t appear to change,” Hertzog said.

“They still have the ability to look inside their own mind as accurately as they used to, if not more so.  Their subjective experience or self-awareness apparently doesn’t change with aging.”

Hertzog and his colleagues have applied techniques for measuring this self-awareness to study older adults, and are now beginning to test a new training program for teaching the use of self-awareness.

“This ability to self-monitor may be an important tool an older person can use to overcome some memory loss.”

They believe that older people can be helped to develop new, but simple skills to overcome their declining memory.  For example, an older person may not easily remember the numbered location where they have parked their car in a multilevel parking deck.  They should look carefully at the surroundings and also look back at the car several times as they walk away.  By remembering to pay attention to the location, they are more likely to remember where the car is parked when they return.

“A younger adult might remember the location without even consciously attending to it.  Older adults often won’t, so they need to change their approach to remembering.

“What we are trying to do is use the person’s intact awareness as a scaffold on which to hang their memory,” he said.  “It’s a way of getting around their less effective memory by being mindful and strategic in their use of memory.”

Georgia Tech’s School of Psychology includes the largest group of cognitive psychologists in the world studying the critically important area of aging.  Most of the faculty have funded research projects, and the program is supported by an NIA training grant that provides graduate and postgraduate fellowships for study of cognitive aging.  For more information,