Older People's Brains May Be Slower, But Only Because They Know So Much, Study Says

Older People's Brains May Be Slower, But Only Because They Know So Much
happy old man giving thumbs up
happy old man giving thumbs up

A new study from Germany has likened the memory abilities of older people to full hard drives: They don’t lose cognitive power over time; they just function slower because of an increasing amount of information.

"The human brain works slower in old age but only because we have stored more information over time," lead researcher Dr. Michael Ramscar said in a written statement.

The team of researchers from Tübingen University in Germany used computers to replicate different stages of an adult’s memory recall. The computer models were fed small amounts of information each day (much like young adults), but as the devices gathered more information, their performances mirrored those of older people, according to the study, which was published this month in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science.

"Forget about forgetting," study researcher Peter Hendrix told The Independent. "If I wanted to get the computer to look like an older adult, I had to keep all the words it learned in memory and let them compete for attention."

Researchers concluded the brains of senior citizens do not deteriorate over time due to aging, as traditionally thought to be the case, but they slow down because they hold more information.

They put their theory to the test by analyzing a previous linguistics test in which volunteers (young and old) were instructed to remember unrelated words like “necktie” and “cracker.” The results favored young people. The previous study suggested the reason older individuals struggled with the test was due to their declining memory; however, the folks at Tübingen University concluded that's actually not the case.

“The fact that older adults find nonsense pairs -- but not connected pairs -- harder to learn than young adults simply demonstrates older adults' much better understanding of language,” Harald Baayen, head of the Alexander von Humboldt Quantitative Linguistics research group where the study was carried out, said in a statement. “They have to make more of an effort to learn unrelated word pairs because, unlike the youngsters, they know a lot about which words don’t belong together.”

A separate poll conducted in 2013 showed that younger adults are actually more inclined to have lapses in memory than older people.

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