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Does Age Affect Memory?

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“Now, what did I come into this room for? I can’t remember!” Grandma says, then sighs, shaking her head. “I guess I’m having a senior moment.”

We often assume that when we get older, we start to lose our ability to remember things. But have you forgotten your lunch in the fridge before? Or forgotten your homework on your desk? Is age really an important factor in how well we remember things? Is memory loss directly related to age, then?

Scientists and psychologists generally divide memory into three types—sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory.

Sensory memory is what you use to instantly (within a few seconds) recall impressions made on your senses. If someone were to quickly flash a picture in front of you, even if it was only for less than a second, for a brief time you would be able to recall the colors and shapes that you saw. Sensory memory begins to degrade, or fade, immediately and rapidly.

Short-term memory is what you use to recall information within a period of several seconds. Studies have found that you are able to hold about 4-7 things in your short-term memory at one time. Short-term memory also degrades fairly quickly, which is why it is difficult to remember, for example, your friend’s address a few seconds after she’s told it to you. Both sensory and short-term memory have very limited capacities and operate in the frontal lobe of the brain.

Long-term memory has a much larger capacity. It includes all of your memory capacity beyond short-term memory—all the way to your earliest childhood memory!  You may not to be able to remember your friend’s address right after she’s told you, but you can probably remember your own address. Long-term memory uses a greater area of the brain.

Things in your sensory and short-term memory can settle into your long-term memory with the help of sleep and the part of your brain called the hippocampus. When you sleep, your brain files through all the memories of the day and converts the important stuff into long-term memory.

Most people can’t remember anything before they were about three or four years old. Babies’ memories develop during these first few years, gradually growing in capacity. Once you’re no longer a toddler, your memory is at full operating capacity.

Problem: Does age negatively affect memory?

In this study, you will test the short-term memory capacity of different age groups and examine your data to determine if younger people really have a better memory than older people.

Materials

  • Memory flashcards with pictures, or a computer, printer, and paper to make your own
  • At least 5 groups of test subjects from different age groups (it would be ideal to test two people from each of the following age groups: 10-19 years old, 20-29 years old, 30-39 years old, 40-49 years old, 50-59 years old, 60-69 years old, 70+ years old)
  • Timer or stopwatch

Procedure for Memory Flashcards

  1. If you are going to make your own memory flashcards, make sure to print on paper thick enough that you can’t see the printed image when it is turned upside down.
  2. Choose about twelve images of common things (for example, apples, butterflies, trees, airplanes, etc.). Arrange and resize the images on a Word document so that you can fit about eight images on each page.  Print two copies of each of the images.
  3. Cut out the images into cards of the same size.
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