Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Aging may enhance procedural skill acquisition

While I notice that my short term memory is getting worse, I have felt (through my practicing and learning of new piano pieces) that my procedural learning capabilities are improving with age. In this light I found these observations from Brown et al. interesting:
It is well known that certain cognitive abilities decline with age. The ability to form certain new declarative memories, particularly memories for facts and events, has been widely shown to decline with advancing age. In contrast, the effects of aging on the ability to form new procedural memories such as skills are less well known, though it appears that older adults are able to acquire some new procedural skills over practice. The current study examines the effects of normal aging on procedural memory more closely by comparing the effects of aging on the encoding or acquisition stage of procedural learning versus its effects on the consolidation, or between-session stage of procedural learning. Twelve older and 14 young participants completed a sequence-learning task (the Serial Reaction Time Task) over a practice session and at a re-test session 24 hours later. Older participants actually demonstrated more sequence skill during acquisition than the young. However, older participants failed to show skill improvement at re-test as the young participants did. Age thus appears to have a differential effect upon procedural learning stages such that older adults' skill acquisition remains relatively intact, in some cases even superior, compared to that of young adults, while their skill consolidation may be poorer than that of young adults. Although the effect of normal aging on procedural consolidation remains unclear, aging may actually enhance skill acquisition on some procedural tasks.


  1. See also, ahem, McNay & Willingham 1998 :-).

  2. We now know that NREM sleep consolidates declarative memory and REM sleep consolidates procedural memory. The aging population typically shows a slight decrease in NREM, thus a decrease in declarative memory performance. It'd seem only natural to look at REM behavior in the aging population and its association with procedural memory performance.