Older people don't lose cognitive power they just know too much, say scientists

Researchers from Germany claim that brains function like hard drives - the more information we put in them, the longer it takes to recall it

A new study of memory recall in older people suggests that our brains don’t lose cognitive power with age they just recall information more slowly, like a computer filled to bursting with data.

“The human brain works slower in old age but only because we have stored more information over time,” said Dr Michael Ramscar of Tübingen University in Germany and lead author of the study. “The brains of older people do not get weak. On the contrary, they simply know more.”

Dr Ramscar’s research focused on re-evaluating the standard measures for cognitive performances, methods that he and his team claim are flawed.

Using computers, the researchers modelled memory recall from different stages in an adult’s lifetime, finding that when the computers’ memory bank was smaller their performance resembled a young adult. When the computer was asked to recall information from a larger data set the performance looked more like that of an older adult.

"Imagine someone who knows two people's birthdays and can recall them almost perfectly,” said Dr Ramscar. “Would you really want to say that person has a better memory than a person who knows the birthdays of 2000 people, but can 'only' match the right person to the right birthday nine times out of ten?”

Calibrating their computer models to work with linguistic datasets, Ramscar’s team found that tests of memory recall do not take into account the difference in vocabulary sizes between older and younger people.

"Forget about forgetting," said fellow researcher Peter Hendrix, "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."

Another test conducted by the team asked volunteers to remember pairs of un-related words such as ‘necktie’ and ‘cracker’, a task that young people perform better at than older individuals.

The team from Tübingen suggest that this is because older adults have a lifetime of knowing which words should come together, and are therefore less likely to remember the unrelated pairs.

"If you think linguistic skill involves something like being able to choose one word given another, younger adults seem to do better in this task. But, of course, proper understanding of language involves more than this,” said Professor Haraly Baayen of the Alexander von Humboldt Quantitative Linguistics research group where the work was undertaken.

“You have also to not put plausible but wrong pairs of words together. 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.”

“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."

The study was published in the journal Topics in Cognitive Science

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine