Author Tony Buzan once emphasized that memory loss associated with increasing age may be more of a reflection of how we view older people, how they view themselves, and how we test them in the laboratory than actual memory decline due solely to the aging process.
While test results often show poor memory performance, especially in the elderly, two factors that confound these test results are “level of interest” and the use of “timed performance”.
Studies have shown that if you want to learn a new skill quickly and effectively, you need to be interested in learning that skill, and you give yourself sufficient time to learn it.
Level of interest to learn new skills
Walsh (1975) points out that the level of interest can affect the performance of recall. He reports a study by Hulicka in which she tried to teach associations of actual words paired with nonsense letters. She found that many elderly participants performed poorly because they felt that the task of learning nonsense words was not worth the effort. The study also showed that the elderly performed better when the task changed to an association of occupational names paired with actual surnames.
Walsh points out that lab experiments may often be perceived as meaningless and may negatively affect the elderly participants’ performance, while making the task meaningful may positively affect the performance.
So, if you want to learn new skills, make them meaningful or worthwhile to you.
Time given to learn new skills
Reystak, in his book The Mind, spends a great part of the chapter on Ageing, stressing that we see a decrease in the speed of processing in the elderly.
Often in laboratory tests, we do not allow the elderly participants adequate time with which to encode and recall information. According to Reystak, elderly participants, when allotted as much time as they need, often perform at a level comparable with younger participants in terms of recall.
So, if you want to learn new skills, make sure you give yourself time to learn them.
What about neuronal loss?
An important area that Buzan brings up concerns neuronal loss [loss of neurons] due to normal aging. As Buzan states, there is no conclusive evidence in the literature regarding just how much of the brain is lost, and just what areas are affected. However, the interest regarding neuronal loss may be directed.
Reystak (1988) raises major theoretical issues that are particularly relevant here. He reports a study comparing the amount of blood flow and oxygen consumption to the brain in healthy 20-year-old men and 70-year-old men. If there is a substantial neuronal loss, there should also be a decrease in blood flow and oxygen consumption. The results showed that there was no difference between the two groups in these measures.
Reystak points out that, while there may be neuronal loss accompanying the aging process, this loss may be offset by the redundancy and plasticity of the brain.
Use it or lose it
Redundancy suggests that there are a greater than necessary number of neurons in the brain, such that neurons may die with no reduction in observed behavior.
For example, we may damage an area of the brain and still show little or no change in our behavior.
Plasticity refers to the fact that the brain can change in organization. For example, damaging an area of the brain responsible for a particular function will result in another area of the brain taking over the function of the damaged area.
In this way, as Reystak points out, neuronal cell loss due to normal aging may lead to greater functioning and more numerous connections in the remaining cells. This suggests that continually using the brain (i.e. making more associations) can offset any naturally occurring loss due to cell death. Buzan calls this idea “use it or lose it.”
There is a great deal of literature showing the effects of using the brain on the subsequent development of the brain. One interesting study is rather amusing.
Greenough (cited in Reystak) trained rats to reach with a particular paw for pieces of chocolate chip cookies. Later examination of the area of the brain responsible for motor movement revealed more synaptic connections compared to the brains of untrained rats.
In a similar study quite famous in the literature, Greenough placed one group of rats in an enriched environment with many toys and a second group of rats in a barren, impoverished environment. Later tests revealed that the rats in the enriched environment developed heavier brains with more connections than those in the impoverished environment.
There is also research that suggests that the environment plays a critical role in human development.
K Schaie (cited in Reystak) conducted a twenty-year study of 4,000 people and found that elderly people who maintained active social lives outperformed those who led restricted lives. Also, by providing mental exercises that utilize spatial, numerical, and verbal skills, Schaie induced over half of a group of elderly volunteers to improve their performances.
Using mnemonics to learn new skills
Schaie further suggests that the use of mnemonics can improve memory in the elderly.
An interesting study describing the use of mnemonics in the elderly was conducted by Robertson-Tchabo, Hausman and Arenberg.
In the first phase of the study, elderly participants received a list of words and memories to recall. As expected, initial recall was low. The elderly then learned how to use a particular mnemonic while memorizing a list. Recall for the list studied using mnemonics increased significantly.
However, days later, when they tried to learn and recall a list, performance was once again poor. It appeared that the elderly did not spontaneously use the mnemonic technique for the final list.
In the second phase of the experiment, the elderly participants were divided into three groups. They were all required to master a mnemonic technique and apply it to the list learned in the training sessions.
During the test sessions, the participants in all three groups were required to memorize and recall a list of words. Participants in Group 1 were instructed to “use the method we have been using for the past few days”. Group 2 participants were instructed to form the associations of the mnemonics and to verbally describe the images. Group 3 participants were never instructed to apply the mnemonic technique they have studied.
The result was that Group 3 participants recalled fewer words than those in Group 1 and Group 2. Interestingly, there was no difference in performance between the participants in Group 1 and Group 2. This suggests that mnemonics are valuable aids to memory. But as the study suggests, people need to learn how to actively develop and use them.
Practice and build connections
The information reported above supports the belief that your memory need not diminish with increasing age. As Buzan states, “Use it or lose it” perfectly describes the scientific literature.
By practicing and expanding your mental activities, new connections and associations will be developed throughout your lifetime. This finding is extremely relevant to you and your business.
All too often, we treat seniors in the business place as incompetent because they can’t perform as quickly as younger people. However, seniors have a wider range of experience and associations than younger, less experienced personnel, and their knowledge is invaluable.
It is critical to constantly challenge your mind and the minds of your co-workers; to strive to engage people and keep them involved; to allow extra time for the elderly.
Keep in mind that we are able to learn new skills provided that we see their relevance, perceive them as worthwhile, and feel motivated.
- Buzan, T. “Old Dogs Learn New Tricks.” Adapted with permission.
- Reystak, R. M. The mind. 1988.
- Robertson-Tchabo, E. A., Hausman, C. P., Arenberg, D. A Classical Mnemonic for Older Learners: A Trip That Works in Adult Development and Ageing. Little Brown & Company, 1982.
- Schaie, K. W., Geiwitz, J. Adult Development and Ageing. Little Brown & Company, 1982.
- Walsh, D. A. Age Differences in Learning and Memory. Brooks & Cole Publishing Company, 1975.