New memory training process shows promise for older adults

Older adults often find themselves repeating a story to the same audience within a short amount of time. They remember the story, but not that they have recently told it.

Wake Forest University psychologist Janine Jennings and her co-researcher Larry Jacoby of Washington University have developed a memory training technique that shows promise for helping older adults overcome such problems. The technique, which involves gradually increasing the delay intervals during memory training, can help older adults successfully recollect information across ever-lengthening delays.

The purpose of the study was to find out if older adults can be trained to better remember what has recently occurred. The answer is “yes,” said Jennings, assistant professor of psychology at Wake Forest.

The results of their study have been published in the September issue of the journal Neuropsychological Rehabilitation.

The psychologists were able to successfully train a group of older adults —average age, 73 — to improve memory performance. After seven days of training (for about 45 minutes each day), the participants, on average, performed 14 times better on the memory task. Training involved showing lists of words to participants one at a time, with some words repeated in the list at gradually increasing intervals. The participants had to try to remember words that had already appeared in the list.

Jennings said the memory training in this study was aimed at improving overall memory function rather than teaching recall tricks specific to one memory task.

“Many efforts to improve memory function in adults have focused on teaching strategies rather than improving cognitive processes,” Jennings said. “In the current study, we tested the efficacy of a memory training technique with older adults that is based on the theory that memory consists of two processes—an automatic process, known as familiarity, and a consciously-controlled process referred to as recollection.”

The automatic memory process lets a person know that someone they see is familiar, she says. When someone begins searching their memory for why that person is familiar or when they last saw him, they are using the second, more difficult memory process called recollection.

Specifically, we want to improve the recollection process — “the labor-intensive part of memory,” Jennings said. It would be helpful if older adults could strengthen the ability to recollect something following a delay, she said. In addition to potentially keeping grandparents from retelling stories after very brief intervals, the benefits could extend to other everyday activities.

Suppose, she said, someone usually takes his prescription medication with breakfast. If the phone rings immediately after he takes his pills, will he later remember if he has taken them? If the phone conversation is a long one, will he be less likely to remember if he has taken the pills?

The dramatic improvement in performance in the lab on memory tasks when the delay interval is gradually increased is encouraging, Jennings said. “The next question to answer is whether the effects occur outside the lab and make a difference in people’s everyday memory function.”

Categories: Research, School of Medicine