It's not about a bad memory - old people just know too much

A new scientific review has concluded that the reason older people take longer to recall facts is because they're suffering from information overload

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The Independent Online

The modern world is often a baffling place for those of us of a certain age, but more of that later. First, I'd like to bring some reassurance to anyone who's had a conversation with someone on the street without recalling who they are, or who's thought they had lost their glasses only to find them perched on their head, or who's incapable of leaving the house without thinking they'd forgotten to lock up, or who finds it hard to remember a whole range of details, such as names, addresses, birthdays, anniversaries, and sometimes even where they're meant to be going.

The big news is that it's not because the depredations of old age have withered our brains. Quite the opposite, in fact. It's because we're just too clever. A new scientific review has concluded that the reason older people take longer to recall facts is because they're suffering from information overload. This makes total sense, even to a scientific ignoramus like me. The brain surely has a finite capacity. The older you get, the more “stuff” is housed there. And there must come a point when you just can't load anything more on to it. It's just like computers. Disc full, is the message coming from our brains.

That's what a group of German scientists concluded after, in fact, a series of experiments using a computer. Day by day, the computer was given a certain amount of matter to “read” and digest, in the manner, I suppose, that we go through life. Over time, the computer was found to be slower in processing information, not because its performance had declined, but the database had grown to such an extent that it simply took more time to sort through the data. “The human brain works slower in old age,” said Dr Michael Ramscar, who led the study. “The brains of older people do not get weak,” he added. “They simply know more.”

This, I am sure, comes as a great relief to a considerable number of readers. So when you forget who is the latest James Bond, it's only because you've got a dozen or so on your mental database, and it's difficult to remember which was the one in the swimming trunks and which was the one with the eyebrows.

But whatever the condition of our mature brains, we are still capable of being puzzled by certain aspects of 21st Century life. Can you answer me this? Why is it that when you are notified that one of your apps needs updating to fix the bugs, you download it and it turns out to be worse than it was previously? And why is it that train companies have quiet carriages where passengers are not supposed to use mobile phones and will not have carriages where people are not allowed to eat? I cannot be alone in finding the smell, never mind the noise, of fellow passengers boarding with a bag of fast food revolting. I'd much rather listen to a middle manager barking “touch base” down his mobile phone than someone eating a horrible, greasy, unhealthy, acrid-smelling burger. That's the other thing about getting old: it makes you more intolerant.