Karen Siedlecki, who lives in Cold Spring, is the director of the Memory and Aging Lab at Fordham University (memoryandaginglab.com).
What do you study?
I’m interested in age-related differences in cognition, with a focus on memory, especially episodic memory, which are memories that have a time and place associated with them. We study that by asking participants to remember things like lists of words or pictures. But we also look at autobiographical memories. If you have a memory and you’re able to hold on to it for 50 or 60 years, that memory’s salient and less likely to be lost. Every experience, every event, is a memory except for the current moment. Memory is such a foundational construct in terms of who we are and what we can do.
Does memory change over time?
It’s multidimensional. Some aspects of memory are adversely affected by age and others aren’t. Usually we have more difficulty remembering words we wanted to say — the tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon. We also have worse memory for episodic details, like the name of the author of the book you just read. Short-term memory stays pretty much intact. Semantic memory for information and facts increases as we grow older and tends to plateau in our 50s and 60s. Another type of memory that we preserve across age is implicit memory, for things like how to ride a bike or how to type on a keyboard. As we grow older, the ratio of positive as compared to negative information that we remember increases.
How about cognition?
Research shows that our memory, our processing speed, our visual-spatial ability and our reasoning all tend to peak in our mid-20s and there tends to be a fairly linear decline across age. If I told you to keep the numbers 5 and 7 in mind, that’s not affected as we grow older. But if I ask you to multiply those numbers and divide by 6, that’s working memory and that tends to be affected. But we also show an increase in knowledge and experience that helps compensate for those declines.
Anything else get stronger as we age?
A lot of people view getting older as completely negative, but in fact there are a lot of gains. We’ve talked about gains in expertise and knowledge, but there’s evidence older adults are better able to regulate emotions. They actually have increased well-being. If you ask people to rate their happiness, older adults are just as happy as younger adults, if not happier. Aging isn’t all bad.
What are your favorite memories?
Two of my favorites include the days that my children, Gwendolyn, who is 8, and Griffin, who is turning 5, were born. We spent months anticipating their arrivals and we were so excited to meet them. I love sharing details of the days they were born with them, especially on their birthdays.