New research has led scientist to believe that when elderly people’s brains seem to slow down it is due to the huge amount of information they have amassed rather than a sign of deterioration.
A team of doctors at Tübingen University in Germany have said that a human brain is similar to a computer hard drive and will take slightly longer to retrieve a certain piece of information if it has more data to sift through.
They fed information into a computer each day to ‘teach’ it new words and commands. At first it performed like a young adult in cognitive tests.
After feeding the computer several decades’ worth of information, the computer started to perform like an older adult. This wasn’t because of a decline in the computer’s processing powers but rather that there was so much more information or ‘experience’.
Dr Michael Ramscar said: “The human brain works slower in old age but only because we have stored more information over time
“The brains of older people do not get weak. On the contrary, they simply know more. Imagine someone who knows two people’s birthdays and can recall them almost perfectly.
“Would you really want to say that person has a better memory than a person who knows the birthdays of 2000 people, but can ‘only’ match the right person to the right birthday nine times out of ten?”
Some researchers also believe that cognitive tests may actually be skewed in a younger person’s favour, which in turn may give us a misleading impression about their capabilities capered with older people.
For example a memory test in which a participant is asked to memorise pairs of objects that would never be likely to go together such as a necktie and a cracker sees young people out perform old.
However, this could be because old people are more resistant to the test as they have learned that the words never go together. This means they would require more effort to memorise each pair of objects which would lead to more mistakes.
Prof Harold Baayen said: “The fact that older adults find nonsense pairs harder to learn than young adults simply demonstrates older adults’ much better understanding of language.
“They have to make more of an effort to learn unrelated word pairs because, unlike the youngsters, they know a lot about which words don’t belong together.”
More tests need to be done before the theory can be proved, but the research may provide some comfort for people who fear they may be suffering the onset on senility, simply because they can’t remember things as well as they did when they were younger.