Remembering what to remember and what to forget

June 25, 2009

People in very early stages of Alzheimer's disease already have trouble focusing on what is important to remember, a UCLA psychologist and colleagues report.

"One of the first telltale signs of Alzheimer's disease may be not , but failure to control attention," said Alan Castel, UCLA assistant professor of and lead author of the study.

The study consisted of three groups: 109 healthy (68 of them female), with an average age of just under 75; 54 older adults (22 of them female) with very mild Alzheimer's disease, who were functioning fine in their daily lives, with an average age of just under 76; and 35 young adults, with an average age of 19.

They were presented with eight lists of 12 words, one word at a time, each paired with a point value from 1 to 12. A new word with its value was presented on a screen every second. The words were common, like "table," "wallet" and "apple." They were given 30 seconds to recall the words, and were told to maximize their scores, by focusing on remembering the high-value words.

The young adults were selective, remembering more of the high-value words than the low-value words. They recalled an average of 5.7 words out of 12. The healthy older adults remembered fewer words, an average of 3.5, but were equally selective in recalling the high-value words.

"It's not surprising that the older adults recalled fewer words," Castel said. " declines with age. However, the older adults were just as selective as the younger adults."

The people with very mild Alzheimer's disease recalled an average of just 2.8 words and had some trouble in focusing on just the high-value words, recalling some lower-value words.

"They recall fewer words and their ability to be selective is worse," Castel said. "They understand that they should attend to the high-value words, but they can't do it as well."

What are the implications of this study?

"Memory can be a limited resource," Castel said. "If we can recall only so much information, we need to be selective in old age. A trick for successful aging is to know what the important things are and to remember those things. Many older adults learn to be more selective because they know they can't remember everything. The ability to be selective might decline when our attention is divided and in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease."

Castel, who conducts research on human memory and aging, including how memory changes as we get older, suggests that older adults focus on fewer, important things.

"If you can remember only a few things before you travel, for example, you might want to remember to take your wallet, your plane ticket and your passport," he said. "If you forget your handkerchief and your comb, those aren't so important."

Castel has conducted similar studies in which some words have negative point values; if you recall them, your score will decrease.

"Healthy older adults are good at not recalling them," he said. (He has not done that study with people in early stages of Alzheimer's disease.)

If you don't want to remember something, he said, the best thing to do is not to pay attention to it.

The research was published in the May issue of the journal Neuropsychology. It was federally funded by the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health. Co-authors are David Balota, professor of psychology and neurology at Washington University in St. Louis; and David McCabe, assistant professor of psychology at Colorado State University.

Castel, 33, follows his own advice.

"I can't remember everything," he said. "I'm learning to be more strategic. I ask myself, what are the three most important things I need to do today. It's about prioritizing."

Source: University of California - Los Angeles

Explore further: Linguistics may be clue to emotions

Related Stories

Linguistics may be clue to emotions

January 20, 2005

Words may be a clue to how people, regardless of their language, think about and process emotions, according to a Penn State researcher. "It has been suggested in the past that all cultures have in common a small number of ...

New study examines memory, learning and aging

August 20, 2007

Many older people complain about their memory as they age. With almost 35 million adults age 65 or older living in the United States, it is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Think memory worsens with age? Then yours probably will

April 21, 2009

Thinking your memory will get worse as you get older may actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Researchers at North Carolina State University have found that senior citizens who think older people should perform poorly ...

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Cow embryos reveal new type of chromosome chimera

May 27, 2016

I've often wondered what happens between the time an egg is fertilized and the time the ball of cells that it becomes nestles into the uterine lining. It's a period that we know very little about, a black box of developmental ...

Shaving time to test antidotes for nerve agents

February 29, 2016

Imagine you wanted to know how much energy it took to bike up a mountain, but couldn't finish the ride to the peak yourself. So, to get the total energy required, you and a team of friends strap energy meters to your bikes ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.