by Len Horridge

Memory and age

There is a commonly-held belief that as we get older, our memory gets worse. Age does indeed affect memory, but for the most part it changes memory rather than making it worse.

Rest, with nothing else, results in rust.

Wilder Penfield

Certain diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, can impact on our ability to recall memories, but most specialists agree that with regular activity, we can keep the brain active into later life. It is really a case of use it or lose it. Indeed, there are many examples of great artists, writers and composers doing some of their best creative work later in life, and the winners of various mastermind and quiz competitions come from all age groups.

We often believe that when we were younger that we had no problem remembering, but did you never have problems revising and remembering for exams? Those of you with children will recall, no doubt, the number of times teenagers have lost their keys or forgotten to bring home that essential textbook.

Beliefs about memory

BELIEF itself can act as a barrier: if we believe something, we tend to filter our experience to look for events that support the belief, and ignore or just not notice events that contradict the belief. So if we believe that we have poor memory, we will convincingly demonstrate this to ourselves, over and over again, thus reinforcing the belief.

Even if we lose 10,000 brain cells a day from birth, the total number lost by the time we are 80 would be less than three per cent.

Surprised? Most people are, but this is fact. We use age to explain certain ‘disabilities’, but this excuse is unfounded. Though we have SEEN old relatives doing daft things, such as forgetting why they are going up stairs, we have pre-selected these memories as they fit in with beliefs; what we often forget are the periods of lucid thought, sensible behaviour and fast thinking that older people have.

We can also get absent minded, but this is not pre-determined, and is more a matter of personality than lack of memory.


The World Memory Champion for 1999, Tatiana Cooley, a 27-year-old administrative assistant, who triumphed by being able to recall sequences of numbers, lengthy poems and other feats of memory, admitted to being at a loss in her normal job without Post-It Notes.

‘I’m incredibly absent-minded’ she said, as most of us believe we are (though, in this case, many would disagree with Tatiana).

Mental speed

One important fact here is that the SPEED at which we do things mentally may slow down as we get older; as our blood circulation decreases with age, so our brain works slower, but this, as many of will have experienced, is not necessarily a bad thing!

Also, in our defence, the older we get, the more memories we have. Some memory theorists say that the more we store, the slower the system can get, but this is not necessarily the case.

Tests in America showed that there IS a decline in memory as we get older and that younger age groups tend to recall more under test conditions; but the difference in retention between the 20-year-old group and the 70-year-olds was less than 15 per cent and, in some individuals, there was little decline at all in comparison with their younger colleagues.

It was also found that, given time and effort, these figures can improve as far as the older group were concerned. So, the memories are there, it is often just a question of the time required to access them.

Older adults have a big advantage to offset the slowness that may come with increasing age: experience. A good memory is an organised memory – one that is richly connected. With a wealth of experience, you have the potential for many connections. With the appropriate strategies, such rich connectivity can help your remembering.

Key events

Why do you forget things? One simple answer is that if you remembered EVERYTHING, your brain would overload very quickly. So, we have selective memory.

As we get older, we seldom forget the key things to us: our first day at school, our first love, a special sporting occasion, our pets and our memories from many years ago are all there, often in a very distinct and precise way.

The memory of, say, September 11th is distinct to us, too, but this is because it was so different and so world changing that it will stick in most people’s retrievable memories for years (and probably all of their lives).

The more mundane things in our lives will not be remembered, unless we decide they need to be. There is research that suggests that some long-term memory will simply fade due to non-usage. However, experts are at a loss, currently, as to why we can recall how to ride a bike but struggle to know how to drive a car competently after similar lapses of time.