We think of memory complaints as being more common among older people. A recent colloquialism has even emerged for older folk to refer good humouredly to their “senior moments”. Performance on lab-based memory tests also tends to deteriorate with age. So how come researchers have found that subjective complaints about memory don’t correlate reliably with lab-based memory performance? And why are the links between age and subjective memory complaints not as robust as we’d expect?
Part of the answer may have to do with the complicating influence of factors like personality and depression. But to probe deeper, Peter Vestergren and Lars-goran Nilsson have surveyed hundreds of people of various ages about their memory concerns and their perceived reasons for their memory problems.
Three hundred and sixty-one participants (aged 39 to 99) answered a simple question about their memory: “Do you experience problems with your memory?”, by choosing between “no problems at all”, “small problems”, “moderate problems”, “big problems”, and “very big problems”. Anyone answering “moderate problems” or above was categorised as feeling that they had a memory problem, and they were further asked to say what they felt the causes were for their memory problems.
Thirty per cent of the sample said they had memory problems, and the proportion increased with rising age (although age only accounted for 4% of the variance in subjective memory problems). Cited reasons for memory problems fell into three main categories: ageing (26.6%), stress (20.2%), and multi-tasking (12.8%), with the reasons given varying with age. Older participants (aged 69-99) tended to say that ageing was the cause of their problems more often than did middle-aged participants (aged 39-64) – the proportions being 61 vs. 18 %. By contrast, stress and multi-tasking were more often given as reasons by the middle-aged group than the older group (50% vs. 8.3%).
Vestergren and Nilsson think these results could help explain past inconsistencies in the literature. Perhaps, they reasoned, subjective memory complaints are more frequent in middle age, versus older age, than we might expect, because of the stress and work demands experienced by people in mid life. The results “may also to some extent explain a lack of relations between subjective and objective measures of memory,” the researchers said. “Assuming that many subjective measures of memory are sensitive to transient effects of varying degrees of stress and cognitive load on memory performance, events influenced by these variables will not be replicated by laboratory tests under constant conditions.” Based on this, the researchers called on their fellow memory researchers to gauge subjective and objective stress levels and multi-tasking demands alongside their tests of objective memory – to do so will help illuminate instances when subjective memory scores diverge from objective memory.
The current study complements an earlier Digest item that covered diary research into people’s memory lapses or “d’oh moments”. Healthy participants were found to experience an average of 6.4 such lapses per week – with younger participants actually reporting more than older participants.
Vestergren, P., and Nilsson, L. (2011). Perceived causes of everyday memory problems in a population-based sample aged 39-99. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25 (4), 641-646 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1734