How Age Affects Long-Term Memory

How Age Affects Long-Term Memory
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  • 0:02 Memory
  • 2:01 Old Vs. Young
  • 3:50 Sources of Changes
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

In this lesson we examine what long-term memory is, taking a look at the different types or memories and how they form. We will also look at how age influences the creation, storage and retrieval of long-term memories.


Memory is one of those things that make us who we are, but memory comes in many different forms. I dislike fizzy green medicine because one time when I was sick, I threw it all up; other people might like green medicine better than pink medicine. One person watching this may love clowns, while another is afraid of them. Many people know how to tie fancy knots out of a rope or craft ice sculptures; others can barely tie their shoes.

Memory is an extremely complex cognitive phenomenon. To make it more understandable, psychologists have broken it down into various categories. One category is long-term memory, the encoding, storing and retrieval of information over an extended period of time.

There are two main types of long-term memory: explicit memory, which encompasses memories that can be intentionally and consciously recalled, and implicit memory, which is an experiential or functional form of memory that cannot be consciously recalled. This lesson is focused on explicit memory, but I encourage you to do some research on implicit.

Explicit has two main components. The first is episodic memory, which is a recallable event or time that is often emotional. Episodic is like an episode, so think of it like remembering an episode of your life or like a strip of film of something that happened, although memory is far more complex and not actually like film. The time the big scary dog attacked you, the many times your parents embarrassed you and the time you asked that girl out.

The other type of explicit memory is semantic memory, which is recallable knowledge, facts, figures and conceptual information. What year did Columbus sail the ocean blue? What is the chemical composition of water? Even though you might not be able to tell me when you learned it or where, you still have these facts and bits of information in your head.

Old vs. Young

Many things slide as we age. The body is one that is easily noticeable, with the wrinkling, weakening of muscles and graying of hair. Memory also takes a hit as well. There are three parts to memory: encoding, storing and retrieving.

Encoding is the process of entering new memories. I mentioned film earlier when it comes to memory. This is a poor metaphor, since memory is actually much more fluid and impermanent than film. However, I will use it to describe the process of encoding. Encoding is when the images from outside are put onto the film. It is when your eyes, ears and other senses record a memory. As we age, the encoding process deteriorates. It becomes harder to put new memories in. Why this is will be discussed later.

Storing is the act of maintaining memories. Using our metaphor, this is the transferring of your video recordings to VHS tapes or DVDs. And like the metaphor of the video recorder, it's not very good. Storing memories is a complex process involving nearly every part of the brain. This means parts are jumbled, misplaced or just plain forgotten. As we age, our brain begins to break down, and some of the connections to these memories are lost. Think about old VHS tapes breaking in particular spots.

Retrieving is the act of bringing back stored memories. Here, we pop the metaphorical VHS back into the video player and get the memory back. Like the previous two, there is some breakdown with this in old age, but only for more recent memories. Cumulatively, older people have difficulty with new memories and new information. However, distant past memories typically do not decline until the individual is very old.

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