Ageing cognition

Our recent work, carried out with collaborating institutions In the NHS and the community, indicates that effects of age in several everyday cognitive tasks and phenomena are either absent or older adults perform better than younger adults.

This is in spite of the fact that most laboratory work shows significant negative age effects, with young adults consistently outperforming older adults aged 60 and above.

Our research has been on distinct, but related cognitive domains that are vitally important for living independently and seeing oneself as an effective and well-functioning individual. Its potential impact on supporting older people in the community is considerable.

Projects include:

Tasks explored include:

  1. Prospective memory - the ability to remember to do something in the future (e.g., take a medication or pay bills on time)
  2. Having spontaneous thoughts about the future (e.g., thinking about an upcoming job interview)
  3. Experiencing involuntary autobiographical memories (e.g., remembering a past holiday when seeing a TV advert).

All these tasks require an ability to experience thoughts about the past or future without any deliberate attempt to recall. In such situations, thoughts come to mind spontaneously, often in response to incidental cues. There is increasing evidence that rather than being rare phenomena, spontaneous cognitions are ubiquitous in everyday life and may even represent a basic mode in which our cognitive system prefers to operate. Our research is showing small or no reliable age effects in these tasks

By contrast, our initial findings on older adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment who are at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, has shown that they do display significant disruptions in some spontaneous cognitive phenomena compared to healthy older adults (Niedzwienska et al., 2017; Niedzwienska & Kvavilashvili, 2018).

This has led to a new spontaneous retrieval deficit hypothesis, which stipulates that easy cognitive tasks that rely on spontaneous retrieval may represent more efficient early cognitive markers of Alzheimer’s disease than current neuropsychological tests.

Better tests for early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s’ disease are of obvious importance.

Every day memory failures in normal and abnormal ageing

Studying everyday forgetting is however important, especially in older adults who often complain about their memory getting worse, or in clinical populations such as people with traumatic brain injury, Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s disease who do experience memory and attentional problems in everyday life.

Over the past years, we have developed and tested new paper and electronic diary methods for recording everyday memory errors as and when they occur in daily life. These methods have resulted in several interesting findings.

  • everyday memory failures mainly involve forgetting future tasks (e.g., feeding a pet)
  • forgetting past information (e.g., where you put your keys)
  • lapses of attention, absent-mindedness (e.g., forgetting why you entered a room)

Studies conducted by Dr. Andrew Laughland have consistently shown that healthy older adults do not record more memory errors than younger adults despite equivalent compliance rates with the diary method. In a research funded by the European Commission (Marie Curie fellowship to Agnieszka Niedzwienska), we found that people with Mild Cognitive Impairment reported higher number of everyday failures (especially forgetting past information) than a control group of healthy older adults.

This research relies on novel diary and experience sampling methods developed here.