Aging and cognitive change, the decline of memory?

Aging and cognitive change, the decline of memory?

Traditionally, the cognitive psychology has given to the study of memory (and the other basic psychological processes) in adults and healthy people.

This does not mean that other approaches that allow us to answer a different type of question are not possible. For example, one may wonder if the reasoning processes are the same in a person who presents a schizophrenic disorder and in a healthy person, how and when do children begin to use language or what happens to our memory when we get older.

Precisely, in this last aspect we will stop now and analyze the relationships between memory and old age trying to describe how our ability to store changes, retain and retrieve information when we reach the last decades of our life.


  • 1 Old age and decline?
  • 2 Memory and normal aging
  • 3 Conclusions

Old age and decline?

Old age has been considered classically as the stage in which the faculties that would have developed and stabilized throughout youth and adulthood would experience regression or decline.

For a long time the existence of a deterioration of cognitive functions linked to age and practically irreversible has been considered as a fact.

In recent years, however, different authors have insisted that throughout the maturation process, and not only during old age, we find the constant that certain functions mature while others decline.

According to this view, there would be no stage of life where there was only growth or only deterioration.

The conclusions that were drawn from the data obtained in different investigations on memory and the passage of time, can be summarized as follows:

1. First, it seems that change processes do not affect different cognitive functions in the same way.

Intelligence would not vary in a uniform way, but would follow different patterns depending on which particular skill is involved.

In general terms, the known difference between a fluid intelligence and a crystallized intelligence is confirmed: the first, related to basic cognitive processes and independent of culture, only declined in the last years of the life cycle; the second corresponds to the knowledge acquired, can be understood as the accumulated experience and remains stable in the elderly.

2. Second, the processes of change would be different in each person, that is, what is observed is a significant increase in individual differences in cognitive functioning during aging.

These individual differences would manifest themselves giving rise to a very heterogeneous range of personal situations, which could range from those elderly people who show an early and significant deterioration of their cognitive functions, to those who maintain good cognitive functioning until very advanced ages.

This is one of the findings of geriatrics research: the findings in the physiological and psychological spheres show a variability that increases in parallel with the age of the subjects observed (at older age, more variability between subjects); This makes it extremely difficult to define a "typical elder."

3. Third, it seems that we should not assume from the beginning that cognitive changes are irreversible and that appear inevitably linked to aging.

There seems to be a clear relationship between maintaining high levels of intellectual function, on the one hand, and those lifestyles that involve certain levels of stimulation and, above all, the continuation of formal and informal forms of education, on the other.

These are more than causal, reciprocal relationships: people who maintain their cognitive abilities will tend more to develop educational activities than those who do not maintain them and, reciprocally, this type of educational experiences can contribute to maintaining a relatively stable level of functioning. intellectual.

On the other hand, in recent years there is a growing interest in the study of plasticity and how cognitive training methods can maintain or even improve cognitive abilities; Thus, several studies have been done to analyze to what extent the intellectual functioning of the elderly can be improved and intervention programs have been developed for this purpose.

Memory and normal aging

Until now, we have referred to general cognitive changes associated with the aging process. Among these changes, however, those that frequently generate a greater number of complaints and daily problems among the elderly are those related to the loss of their memory.

This has meant that in recent years an increasing number of investigations and publications have been developed that deal, from different perspectives, with the relationship between aging and the functioning of memory processes.

In these investigations, the normal and the pathological are usually understood as two extremes of a continuum in which it is difficult to establish a dividing line. We could say that decanted towards one of the extremes of this continuum would be dementia-related disorders and, in particular, with Alzheimer disease, while on the opposite side would be the normal changes linked to the aging process. The latter would be non-pathological changes that the elderly would experience and that would be part of the set of normal changes that may appear at this stage of life.

At the end of the fifties, Kral, a Canadian doctor, described what he called beningn senescent forgetfulness (forgetful senile benign) to observe the memory changes experienced by the elderly of a Montreal residence.

Kral characterized this syndrome as the difficulty in remembering names or dates referred to the past and that previously recovered without difficulty. He considered that it was a non-progressive disorder and that it was clearly distinguished from "malignant" forgetfulness (dementia) by its low mortality rate after a six-year follow-up of the elderly who presented it.

Since then, a large number of investigations carried out in the following decades have been confirming that, indeed, a decline in memory may appear in healthy elderly people during the last decades of their life.

Now, just like not all cognitive functions evolve in the same way during old age, nor do all memory systems experience the same changes.

Various researches carried out both in the laboratory and in everyday contexts have tried to analyze how different memory systems and subsystems evolve during the last decades of life.

Changes in cognitive functions do not follow a uniform pattern: neither occur in the same way in all subjects, nor in the same subject in all functions.


Cognitive changes that occur during old age should not be considered, from the beginning, irreversible.

Memory can manifest a series of changes during old age that would be part of the normal aging process.

In addition, it has been shown that the elderly only show difficulties in retention when it comes to visual stimuli.

The most important problems appear when they must retain the information while handling it.

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