Intelligence, Memory, & Learning

Intelligence, Memory, & Learning

September 4, 2014 Super Seniors 0 Comments

IntelligenceLeaningMemory_INSThis was once the common perception of the relationship between intelligence and aging. Cross-sectional studies of psychometric intelligence indicated that most abilities peak at midlife, followed by a plateau until the late 50s or 60s and then rapidly declined with age. This conclusion was based on group data. Within this group data there were considerable variations among individuals indicating that individual 70 and 80 year-olds were able to maintain a high level of intellectual functioning.

More recent research indicates that some lifelong cognitive skills may continue to improve with age and some unique abilities may emerge in adulthood.

Intelligence is difficult to measure, however research indicates that older adults experience

Decline in fluid intelligence (spatial orientation, abstract reasoning, and speed of perception). Fluid intelligence may be thought of as the inherited ability to think and reason.

NO decline in crystallized intelligence which may be thought of as the knowledge acquired through education and experience such as verbal skills and social judgement, accumulated knowledge, application of skills and problem solving.

Older adults who are less intellectually active tend to experience declines at younger ages than their more active counterparts.

Declines have also been reversed by some older adults when they engage in intellectually stimulating activities.

We must be careful when interpreting research in this area as older adults tend to be cautious and thoughtful and may answer questions slowly or give multiple, situation-based answers. Timed test situations and/or anxiety may reduce ability as well.

Pragmatic intelligence as described by Baltes includes

General factual and procedural or skill knowledge (riding a bike)

Specialized factual and procedural knowledge (automotive repair)
Knowledge about how to maximize the performance of cognitive skills, such as the use of repetition and review.

This category of intelligence tends to increase over time and will vary depending on the individual’s life experience and as a function of gender, race, class, and culture. Baltes has described successful adaptation to cognitive aging as selective optimization with compensation. The individual maximizes cognitive strengths while developing compensatory skills to shore up weaknesses. (See profile of Jack, on coping). Older individuals increasingly direct their cognitive abilities into areas of high priority and expertise.

Salthouse provides a similar model of successful cognitive aging. He described three strategies that can be used to cope with declines in cognitive ability:

Accommodation: The tendency of older adults to gradually disengage from activities that stress their cognitive limits and direct their energies instead where their accumulated experience is of great value.
Compensation: same level of performance is maintained by changing the way a task is performed (using strategy rather than speed).
Remediation: cognitive intervention to restore cognitive abilities to previous level.

“Use it or lose it.” Life-long learning can help us stay mentally fit as a mentally challenging environment stimulates the brain to continue to build extensions between brain cells which improves the communication between the neurons of higher intellectual functioning.


“Youth longs and manhood strives, but age remembers.”  — Oliver Wendell Holmes

The information-processing model of memory

New information is received by the senses and held in a sensory store specific to the sense in which it was received (example, visual or auditory). This stage deteriorates rapidly, within .5 to 2 seconds.
Features attended to enter a second system, working memory, a gateway memory system containing the information that can be kept in consciousness at one time. Example we get a phone number and use it immediately if the person does not answer we may not recall the number.

Working memory must process the information for it to enter more permanent system, long-term memory. It is this system that is the repository of our past and is what we are generally referring to as memory.
(Belsky, 1999)

Long-term memory seems to have unlimited capacity. It gets there only by being transferred from working memory (short-term memory). One of the best ways of getting information from working memory to long-term memory is to rehearse the information or think about the meaning of new information and it’s relation to information already in memory.

Long-term memory can be divided into three components

Procedural memory: contains information on how to do things such as driving a car
Semantic memory: includes knowledge about language and common sense knowledge
Episodic memory: includes information about personally experienced events

How does age impact

Less efficient at moving information through sensory and working memories to long-term memory

Difficulty retrieving information from long-term memory


Disuse theory: information fades away unless it is exercised, i.e., “Use it or lose it.”

Interference theory: problems retrieving information because new information interferes with the material already in storage.

Slowing of the central nervous system

Distractions may bother more making it harder to pay attention.

Forgetting: some of the reasons information is forgotten. Some information never gets into the memory bank.

Didn’t hear it
Not paying attention
Didn’t understand
Not important
(Stern & Fogler, 1988)

Memories that do enter the memory bank may be over laden with similar information, making the original memory irretrievable. Eating similar foods for breakfast may make it difficult to remember what you had this morning.

Information for which you have few associations and little background knowledge is harder to remember. Remembering “commands” for a computer program when first learning may be difficult until you use with frequency.

It is believed that memories are constantly fading away. Memories need to be repeated, relived, or significant to remain available.

What you can do about it

Attention and focus are both very important when trying to remember.

Self-confidence and believing that you can remember impacts memory.

Organize information: the better we “file” information, the easier it is to retrieve.

External memory aids

Make lists
Keep a calendar, etc.

Internal memory aids

Repeat information several times to yourself
File information systematically, i.e. names alphabetically or by categories
Associate new information with an image
Mnemonics: rhymes or phrases that contain hints about the subject

Speed of behavior or how quick one responds to a stimulus appears to be slower due to age. However, research indicates a number of ways older adults can compensate.

Continued mental activity and physical fitness.
Experience with a task.
Mental strategies such as anticipation.
Observe others for clues about the environment and protection, i.e., cross the street with a young person.
Stay relaxed and have a good attitude. (See Caregiving for relaxation exercises.)

Factors affecting memory for people of ALL AGES – (Stern & Fogler, 1988)

Not paying attention.
Lack of strategies or procedures to perform a task due to lack of knowledge.
Stressed, anxious, pressured, or rushed,
Depression affects negatively motivation, concentration, perception.
Loss and grief: overwhelmed and difficult to focus and concentrate.
Inactivity: uncommitted and unstructured days provide less incentive to focus and organize your thoughts and less need to remember.
Lack of organization in daily life.
Fatigue affects your ability to concentrate and slows down recall process.
Physical Illnesses may cause memory changes. It is important to check with physician as many are treatable such as: infections, heart disease, strokes, thyroid, dehydration, low blood sugar. Even diseases such as Alzheimer’s can be treated.
Medications can make you feel drowsy or confused, slow down recall and make it difficult to concentrate.
Vision and hearing problems can make it difficult to have adequate information or provide incorrect information.
Alcohol can have immediate impact on memory and log term abuse can cause irreversible memory loss.
Poor nutrition

Memory Improvement Techniques (See Stern)

Association: Create an association between the new information and something you already know. This can be a word or a picture.
Visualization: Create a picture in your mind of what you want to remember. Both color and silly images are often very helpful. Ex. To remember names form a visual image involving the word.
Active Observation: Involves thinking about the meaning to you and confirming your desire to remember.
Self Talk and List: Asking yourself questions like ADid I remember to…?@. Making list is also a standard memory device.
Change the environment: Put by the front door things you need to take with you. Put a rubber band on your wrist to remind you to do something.
Story: Devise a story that will connect things you want to remember.
Organize: Organize your thoughts into chunks and/or categories. Ex. When getting ready for a trip: what do I wear as leaving for the trip; what kind of activities will I be doing and what do I like to wear when doing these; sleepwear; toiletries, etc.
Connect to a place or Method of loci: associating each item to be remembered with mental images of a place. Useful for retaining visual information and remembering in a specific order. First step is to use a visual image of a place very familiar to you. Relate each piece of information to a visual image. Mentally place the images somewhere in a familiar room or building.

We can build our memory “muscles” also by doing memory building exercises. To begin with, remember that physical activity such as deep breathing and exercise enhance our mental functioning and improve memory. There are also memory exercises that are building our ability to focus our attention that improve memory. The following exercise is an example. It clears the mind, develops the ability to recall and to visualize, and helps one look at life with objectivity.

Five Day Reversal (Bane, S. 198 ) Review five events for each of five days, beginning with the current day and going back four days. As each day is added, the last day is dropped, keeping the number of days at five. Each event should be visualized and then released, without going into much detail. Example: Friday evening: 1) watched news, 2) pulled weeds in flower garden, 3) barbequed chicken for dinner, 4) had lunch with friends, 5) awakened an hour early by a thunderstorm. Thursday: 10 watched late movie, 2) and so on through Monday. On Saturday you go back through Tuesday, dropping Monday.

Another memory enhancing exercise is Visualization. Look closely at something familiar around your home. Close your eyes and try to recreate in your mind the object. What color is it? Where is it located? What unique qualities does it have? Etc.

Wisdom is another aspect of intelligence that has only recently been researched. One reason for this is the difficulty in defining and measuring it. It is characterized by the integration of thought, feeling and behavior; wealth of experience; reflectiveness; mastery of emotional responses; creativity and transcendence (Lemme, 1999). Another aspect of wisdom is mental flexibility. The capacity to use a variety of approaches and perspectives resulting in alternative solutions.

Common characteristics associated with wisdom are identified as:

Deals with important and/or difficult matters of life and the human condition
“Superior” knowledge, judgement, and advice
Knowledge with extraordinary scope, depth and balance
Used in a well intended manner and combines mind and virtue
Very difficult to achieve but easily recognizable.

Baltes’ research on wisdom found that wisdom-related knowledge and skills are better among older adults than younger, and may be held by someone in the last season of life if he or she has participated in favorable wisdom-facilitating life circumstances and not been struck by brain pathology.
(Baltes 1993)

Courtesy of: University of Missouri-Kansas City


AARP (1994)Testing Your memory: A Self Evaluation: includes video; Social Outreach and Support Programs Division, 601 E. St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 200049

Annenburg Video Series: Growing Old in a New Age; tapes 5 & 6. (1-800-532-7637)

Baltes, P.B. (1993). The Aging Mind: Potential and Limits. The Gerontologist Vol.33. No. 5, 580-594.

Bane, S.D. (198 ). Holistic health techniques to improve self-image & personal growth of the elderly based on ROSE. Kansas City, MO., U.S. Dept. Of Health and Human Services.

Belsky, J. (1999). The Psychology of Aging: Theory, Research, and Interventions. Pacific, CA., Brooks/Cole Publishing.

Crook, Thomas H. And Adderly, Brenda. (1998) The Memory Cure. New York, Pocket Books.

Lachman, M. (1996) Your memory: what changes and what you can do about it. Waltham, MA., Natl. Policy and Resource Center on Women and Aging.

Lemme, Barbara H. (1999) Development in Adulthood Second Edition. Boston, Allyn and Bacon.

Stern, Lynn and Fogler, Janet. (1988) Improving Your Memory. Ann Arbor, MI. Memory Skills.


Women and Aging Letter: Memory Loss

Alzheimer’s, Memory Loss, Menopause, and Estrogen

Aging and Memory Research Labs

Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory

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