Newswise — It's not just the memory that fades with time, but a person's confidence in their memory, according to an Appalachian State University psychologist.

"People have memory failures throughout their lives, but people start to evaluate them differently and worry about them more as they become older," says Dayna Touron, an assistant professor in Appalachian's Department of Psychology. "What we have been finding is that older adults' memories don't decline nearly as much as they think they do."

Touron researches how learning and memory change with age. She currently is working with Georgia Tech researchers on a National Institute on Aging funded project to learn how people's beliefs about their memory influence memory and learning.

Her most recent research, "Distinguishing Age Differences in Knowledge, Strategy Use, and Confidence During Strategic Skill Acquisition" has been published in the September issue of the journal Psychology and Aging. Touron has tested the memory of adults ages 60-75 using a variety of methods, from written tests to computerized tasks, in the psychology department's Adult Cognition Lab. She has found that, in some cases, older adults' accuracy is on par with that of college students. The college students just tend to complete tasks more quickly.

When older adults assume that their memory is declining, they tend not to rely on it as much as they did when they were younger, Touron explained. Instead, they may follow time-consuming steps to complete a task.

Positive feedback can make a difference in older adults' willingness to trust their memory, she has found.

"If you tell them what their accuracy is when they perform a task, they will begin to rely on their memory more, and to a level that is comparable to younger adults," Touron said. "That's an easy change to make that has a pretty profound effect on their performance. Older adults seem to need more feedback than younger adults do."

Such findings are important as seniors remain in the workforce or return after retirement. "It's important to understand how older adults learn and that they can learn as well as younger adults. They tend to learn a little more slowly, but once they learn something they tend to be able to pick up speed," she said.

Touron believes it's important to encourage older adults to pursue lifelong learning. "Even if takes them longer to acquire a new skill, they can learn new things," she said. Sometimes that's important from a job perspective, but it's also important from a quality of life perspective."

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Psychology and Aging (Sep-2004)