Healthy ageing reduces the precision of episodic memory retrieval

Korkki, S.M., Richter, F.R., Jeyarathnarajah, P., & Simons, J.S. (2020). Psychology and Aging, 35, 124-142.

Episodic memory declines with older age, but it is unresolved whether this decline reflects reduced probability of successfully retrieving information from memory, or decreased precision of the retrieved information. Here, we used continuous measures of episodic memory retrieval in combination with computational modelling of participants' retrieval errors to distinguish between these two potential accounts of age-related memory deficits. In three experiments, young and older participants encoded stimulus displays consisting of everyday objects varying along different perceptual features (e.g., location, colour and orientation) in a circular space. At test, participants recreated the features of studied objects using a continuous response dial. Across all three experiments, we observed significant age-related declines in the precision of episodic memory retrieval, whereas significant age differences in retrieval success were limited to the most challenging task condition. Reductions in mnemonic precision were evident across different object features retained in long-term memory, and persisted after controlling for age-related decreases in the fidelity of perception and working memory. The findings highlight impoverished precision of memory representations as one factor contributing to age-related episodic memory loss, and suggest that the cognitive and neural changes associated with older age may differentially affect distinct aspects of episodic retrieval.