TORONTO, Ontario — As we get older, many people worry they’ll lose the ability recall their most cherished memories. Researchers in Canada however say the human brain stays sharper for much longer than experts give it credit for. Their study reveals people can remember the details of their lives with near perfect accuracy, even as they age.
The study at Baycrest Health Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute (RRI) surveyed 400 academics about the relationship between memory and aging. These scientists estimated a person’s memory accuracy to be around 40 percent, with the score getting lower as people age and more time from certain events pass. The RRI team then did their own memory test using a guided art tour as a common event for their participants to focus on. The results reveal people actually have the ability to remember details of past events with 94 percent accuracy.
“These results are surprising to many, given the general pessimism about memory accuracy among scientists and the prevalent idea that memory for one-time events is not to be trusted,” says lead researcher Nicholas Diamond, a former graduate student at RRI, in a media release.
“This study shows us that memory accuracy is actually quite good under normal circumstances, and it remains stable as we age,” adds co-author Brian Levine, a senior scientist at RRI. “These results will be helpful for understanding memory in healthy aging.”
Focusing on what you can remember instead of what you can’t
Researchers studied a group as they walked through a 30-minute audio tour of art and other artifacts at Baycrest. Two days later, the team asked each person to recall everything they could about the tour. Those memories were then fact-checked against the record of the actual tour.
The study also examined how well Baycrest employees remember the details of a scripted procedure they went through one month to three years before the experiment. This test allowed researchers to see how long delays impact a person’s ability to recall information.
In both experiments, the Canadian team focused on standardized and verifiable events that all of the participants had in common. Study authors say this approach is different from ordinary memory tests which use random word lists instead of real-life experiences. Other exams also look at a subject’s personal memories, which can’t be fact-checked as easily.
“This pessimism originates from earlier studies showing that memory can be manipulated using certain testing methods,” Levine explains. “While those studies were important in showing the ways in which memory can fail, we wanted to know what happens when people freely recall events without such manipulation. We found that they are overwhelmingly accurate.”
Age still plays a role in memory
Although the results show memory accuracy is very high in both experiments, the total number of details a person remembered decreased over time and age. Older participants could recall about 25 percent of their experience.
“This suggests that we forget the majority of details from everyday events, but the details we do recall correspond to the reality of the past,” says Diamond.
Diamond and Levine also examined how well humans are able to recall the order of events their experiences happen in. Younger adults tend to perform better than older participants when it comes to keeping their memories organized over time. The team finds, while people can recall many details about their lives, the events themselves can become jumbled with age.
“The results of these studies can contribute to identifying differences in memory among those who develop dementia,” Dr. Levine concludes.
The study appears in the journal Psychological Science.