Can Age-Related Forgetfulness be Overcome?

Most older adults accept forgetfulness as natural part of the aging process. However, a group of Canadian researchers from the University of Toronto and Baycrest Health Services have found that mature adults can boost their memory and even perform as well on memory tests as younger adults through distraction learning. This type of learning uses a senior adult’s ability to associate useless information that distracted them while they were learning something new in order to remember what they learned.

The researchers recruited two groups of participants: students from the University of Toronto who were between the ages of 17 and 27 and older adults who lived in the community who were between the ages of 60-78 years old. All the participants were asked to take three tests. The first was to memorize a list of words and recall those words after only a few minutes. After this first test, there was a fifteen minute period during which the participants worked on an attention task that involved looking at pictures. While they were working on this task, half of the list of words they studied appeared as distractors across the screen they were viewing. The effect was similar to watching television and then suddenly seeing weather information about an upcoming storm streamed across the bottom of the screen. In some instances the words were appeared during the 15 minutes assigned for the picture task and in other instances they appeared at the end of the 15 minute interval. After the picture task was complete, the researchers surprised the participants by asking them to recall the words on that original list.

What the researchers observed during that second recall test was quite amazing. Repeating the words as distractors did not affect how well the young people remembered the words on the list. However,  older adults rarely or never forgot the words that had appeared as distractors. These seniors were 30% more likely to remember the distractor words compared to the words that were not used as distractors. The seniors used hyperbinding, linking the words to the pictures, as a way to remember.

What do these findings mean in terms of improving the quality of life for senior citizens? These results can be used to develop learning techniques for older adults that can help them remember important information like when to take medication or if they are supposed to be somewhere. The most significant aspect to all of this is that the seniors do not even have to be consciously paying attention to the distractors that will act as cues to remembering.


Biss RK, Ngo KW, Hasher L, Campbell KL, & Rowe G (2013). Distraction Can Reduce Age-Related Forgetting. Psychological science PMID: 23426890

Image via d13 / Shutterstock.

  • Kelly Williams

    I just hope that this research would turn out fruitful so that my parents (both senior citizens) won’t be that forgetful.

  • Richard Kensinger, MSW

    There are additional ways of enhancing memory for all of us, not just the so-called elderly. Sound sleep, adequate nutrition, & even small amounts of aerobic excercise are known to engender neurogenesis in the hippocampus. The HC is quite instumental in memory formation & retrieval. And we regard 3 kinds of aging: normative, delayed & premature.

    It is true that as we age, our processing speed, our reaction time, & perceptual speed declines to a degree. So the traditional adage of: “use it or lose it” applies to the brain & mind as well.


  • Kelly, I wouldn’t count on this alone to reverse mental decline when there is SO much more that can be done! Besides those things already mentioned there is omega-3 supplementation, meditation, all forms of stress reduction, and mental stimulation including brain training programs, learning a new language, art and music. Also, minimizing toxin exposure can help – for example fluoride in water has been shown to lower IQ.

  • I have been looking for ways to better my memory. I’m only 32 years old and I’m pretty sure that I could not remember a series of words after 15 minutes.

  • It would be nice if there’s ways to fight being forgetful as you get older. Although I’m pretty forgetful now

  • rajieshwary

    I was effected to the mentally apset. I am 35 years. my family tension.

  • rajieshwary

    I was effected to the mentally apset. I am 35 years. my family tension.please give me a best suggestions.

  • I think this might just have to do with the fact that the younger generation is used to seeing advertising and other distractions, so they are easier to ignore for younger people. The older people are possibly a little more thorough in their personality so they are more likely to read the distraction words and take them as useful and remember them. Just and idea…

  • As I am getting older I notice that my memory, both long and short term are not what they used to be. I exercise and take vitamins and omega -3,although these don’t seem to make a difference. I do believe that all the distractions in life, pulling you in every direction is playing a significant role in memory loss.

  • Sue

    I agree with Richard that it pays to keep the mind in use and you either use it or lose it. Yet regardless my family do seem to suffer with dementia which is of concern. I just noticed your article about Bilingualism that sounds quite interesting

  • Murray

    I concur with you Rich.A few things that you should add to the list of sleep,good nutrition and exercise- brain-stimulating exercises like puzzles,brain tests,chess, etc.They help a lot.And so does dance,but not every elderly person can show off their dance moves…

    Jennifer.It’s true that memory fades with increase in age.At 32,however,this is pretty young to consider lapses in memory.What happens to you after 20,30 more years (assuming all goes well,no pun intended)?Many young people like you are suffering from the same ‘condition’. Most of it can be attributed to distraction though.Focus your mind and the results will significantly improve,I can guarantee you.That in combination with the other things to boost your memory will make do.

  • Carol Finch

    This is quite remarkable and could be really useful for the elderly to remember important things. Like Richard and Dean are saying, it is important to combine this with all the other things they mention in their comments and we could see a remarkable improvement in the brain function of older people.

  • Tim

    Richard is correct in his recommendations for keeping the memory sharp. Physical exercise keeps the blood flowing in the brain, and of course exercising the brain keeps it sharp just like any other muscle or body part. Use it or lose it!

  • Sammy Handley

    I tend to forget things somewhat frequently and I hope it doesn’t get worse by age.

  • Ari

    I think it is very important to keep both physically active and mentally active to prevent or reduce the effects of memory loss as we age.I see this with me. I make a point to keep mentally active (think, solve puzzles, etc) every day along with my exercise routine.

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  • It seems like controlling forgetfulness to the aged individuals has a therapeutic remedy already. So far as I realized, it is the method of triggering (with cues) that matter more for a more powerful remembering. Thanks a lot for these insights!

  • It’s funny, I’ve always had a degree of forgetfulness thru my life. I can put something down, turn around and it doesnt seem to be where I thought I put it. It’s always worried my but hasn’t got any worse so far.

  • You have shared a valuable information with us, i hope that this research is going to help the senior citizen’s of our society in order to overcome their age related forgetfulness if they practice accordingly.Thanks a lot.

  • This is great news. I’m only 38 myself and have noticed my memory starting to slip a little bit, this is so exciting.

    Great memory here I come!

  • xison

    I agree with Richard that it pays to keep the mind in use and you either use it or lose it. Yet regardless my family do seem to suffer with dementia which is of concern. I just noticed your article about Bilingualism that sounds quite interesting

  • xison

    I agree with Richard that it pays to keep the mind in use and you either use it or lose it. Yet regardless my family do seem to suffer with dementia which is of concern. I just noticed your article about Bilingualism that sounds quite interesting

  • It will be really helpful for our elders if this research becomes succesful

  • it will be very helpful to all n specially to elders


    Everyone becomes forgetful from time to time But when does an ordinary memory lapse indicate something more serious? Is when someone start having early Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.

    “Memory loss” can be “Memory Gained” If the right medication is being taken. There is this saying “Prevention is better than cure”

  • My mother has dementia. Here memory is getting worse and worse. She still recognizes my brother and I but she doesn’t remember much about us. She can’t remember what we do for a living, who we are married to, etc, The medications they have her on don’t seem to improve her memory at all but they keep her comfortable so her doesn’t panic. Without the medication, she panics because ofter she can’t remember where she is or why. It’s a horrible disease.

Maria Esposito, MA

Maria Esposito, MA, holds a masters of arts in English from Fordhan University. She is now a medical writer who writes patient-oriented articles and blogs based on peer review medical research.

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