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Do Elders Gain Rosier Memories with Age?

Posted Dec 29 2008 6:37pm

For the past decade or so, Crabby Old Lady has been aware that she thinks differently than when she was young and she responds differently to emotional situations – good and bad. She thinks it is interesting to note these changes, but there is not much information available to help her understand them.

Mostly that’s due to lack of research into old brains but in recent years, undoubtedly due to a worldwide aging population, more is being done. Much of it is preliminary, so there are no definitive answers yet and an overview of old brains has not been achieved. Little by little, however, we are learning more.

Except when we’re not. Let Crabby explain.

According to a new study from neuroscientists at Duke University, there is a reason old people recall fewer negative events than young people.

“The scientists found that older adults have less connectivity between an area of the brain that generates emotions and a region involved in memory and learning. But they also found that the older adults have stronger connections with the frontal cortex, the higher thinking area of the brain that controls these lower-order parts of the brain.

“Young adults used more of the brain regions typically involved in emotion and recalling memories.”
- Science Daily, 20 December 2008

The study was done with older adults whose average age was 70 and younger ones whose average age was 24. They were shown a series of 30 pictures during a fMRI some of which were neutral and others that were strongly negative such as snakes and mutilated bodies. After the series, they were asked to recall the photos and the results were sorted in each age group by the number of pictures they could recall.

"’The younger adults were able to recall more of the negative photos,’ said Roberto Cabeza, Ph.D., senior author and Duke professor in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. If the older adults are using more thinking than feeling, ‘that may be one reason why older adults showed a reduction in memory for pictures with a more negative emotional content.’"

The different ways of thinking have tradeoffs, said Dr. Cabeza:

"’Older people have learned to be less affected by negative information in order to maintain their well being and emotional state – they may have sacrificed more accurate memory for a negative stimulus, so that they won't be so affected by it.’"

Now here is Crabby’s problem with this study: The first sentence of the Science Daily story makes an undocumented assumption that she doesn’t necessarily buy: “It turns out there's a scientific reason why older people tend to see the past through rose-colored glasses.”

Do we recall past negative events more positively than they were? Crabby doesn’t know about you, but she has acutely painful memories of past bad times. Not that she dwells on them particularly, but when they come to mind, they don’t get more pleasant with the passage of years, although Crabby will admit she is able to view them with more emotional distance than when they occurred.

Then, toward the end of the story, Dr. Cabeza makes another leap that Crabby questions:

"’Older people dwell in a world with a lot of negatives,’ [he says] ‘so perhaps they have learned to reduce the impact of negative information and remember in a different way.’"

A “lot of negatives”? Okay, Crabby can’t run or even walk as fast as she once did, she falls asleep at night earlier than she would like, her hair is falling out, her stamina has waned and too many loved ones are dead.

But Crabby can think of worse problems to have and she has adapted – just as she adapted to different kinds of limitations when she was young. She doesn’t feel that she lives in a world with a lot of negatives.

Crabby read a report of the study and not the study itself, so perhaps there is some misunderstanding on the writer’s part. But one can’t argue with doctor’s statement and these two assumptions throw the results out of whack for Crabby: ageist beliefs that could not help but affect the study and its interpretation by the researchers.

Crabby Old Lady is, of course, not a neuroscientist and for all she knows old people’s rosy memories and lives of negativity are proven facts, although they seem to fall more into the scientific world of psychology and not brain study.

What ticks off Crabby about this report is that because of those questionable assumptions, she can’t trust the study and that messes with her minor hobby of keeping up with elder brain research.

[ At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Brent Green recalls My Father’s Lessons. ]

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