Why Do Some Older Adults Have a Better Memory Than Others?

A close up of older hands holding an old photo of a young man
Carolyn Hebbard/Getty Images

Understanding differences between individuals is crucial for understanding how memory functions or declines in older adults, say researchers with Stanford University’s Aging and Memory Study. It might eventually help identify when certain memory failures signal a greater risk for dementia.

In a May 2020 study of 100 healthy adults ages 60 to 82, published in the journal eLife, a team of Stanford researchers scanned the participants’ brains as they took memory tests. First the participants were shown words paired with pictures of famous people and places. Then brain scans were taken as they were given just the words and asked to recall the accompanying picture.

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“We could predict whether or not an individual would remember at a given moment in time” based on the patterns of brain activity seen in the scans, lead author Alexandra Trelle said in a statement.

What researchers found was that the heightened brain activity they observed in some of the older adults “looked remarkably similar to that of a 20-year-old. This was true regardless of one’s actual age, and was observed in individuals from age 60 to 75,” Trelle said.

However, the scans also indicated that in the brains of those who had trouble remembering, activity between these regions was noticeably reduced.

“These results deepen our understanding of brain resilience and counter the idea that brain aging is inevitable,” Trelle said.

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