Memory, Everyday

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Everyday memory refers to memory operations that routinely occur in one's daily environment. Examples of everyday memory include remembering names, remembering plans for the day, recalling items that one needs to purchase at the grocery store, remembering to take medications, and remembering telephone numbers, directions, or recent newsworthy events. The hallmark of everyday memory and associated research, then, is that it involves the performance of tasks that occur naturalistically in the real world. This is in contrast to typical laboratory tasks on memory, in which individuals may be asked to do things not typical of what they do in the real world, such as memorize unrelated lists of words or pictures, remember to press a key when a certain word appears on a computer screen, or perform mental arithmetic and report a series of answers later.

It is important to recognize that everyday memory studies can occur both within the laboratory and outside of the laboratory. In laboratory studies, individuals are asked to perform memory tasks that they might perform every day on a daily basis in the real worldsuch as learn a list of groceries, remember phone numbers, or remember information from a news program. In field studies, individuals are tracked throughout their day, and their memory function on specific everyday tasks is recorded. For example, one could measure the accuracy with which an individual takes his or her medications over a period of time, using microelectronic monitors to track the behavior remotely. The advantages of laboratory studies of everyday memory are that the experimenter has very precise control over the conditions under which memory occurs and can precisely standardize the material to be remembered across individuals. The disadvantage of these studies is that laboratory environments cannot reflect all of the variables that operate on individuals in the real world and affect their everyday memory. The advantage of field or naturalistic studies is that one can study events of real consequence to the individual enrolled in the study, but the disadvantage is that the researcher has less control over and knowledge of what is going on in the naturalistic environment. Both types of studies will be discussed here.

Older adults tend to worry about some types of everyday memory performance but not others. For example, Reese et al. reported that older adults have few worries about remembering important dates but have considerable worry about difficulty remembering names. These authors reported that older adults' fear that declines in everyday memory functions could lead to a loss of independence. Thus, the topic of everyday memory function is one of concern to older adults, and the focus of their concern seems to be on everyday functions where they perform poorly.

Laboratory studies

Laboratory studies generally provide evidence for a decline with age in everyday memory processes. One of the most complete studies was conducted by West et al. They found evidence for age-related declines on a wide range of everyday memory laboratory tasks. The tasks included requiring subjects to remember names, locations of objects, grocery lists, faces, telephone numbers, and news events. In another study, Frieske and Park studied older and younger adults' memory for news presented in a radio, television, or newspaper format. For all three formats, older adults remembered less information than young adults, and both groups fared best with television compared to the other two formats. Because television has both visual and auditory information, those dual sources of information appear to be supportive of memory for both young and old. These laboratory studies required older adults to learn unfamiliar material, and there is little doubt that the learning of new information, even if it is of the everyday variety, suffers with increased age.

Field studies

The picture of how everyday memory declines with age is quite different when one studies memory in a naturalistic context. In a series of studies Park and colleagues have examined how accurately older adults remember to take medications, using microelectronic monitors to record the date and time that medication was taken. Park et al. (1992) reported that adults age sixty to seventy-seven made almost no medication errors whatsoever over a one-month period, even though they were taking a minimum of three different medications. In contrast, the oldest adults in the study, age seventy-eight to ninety, made significantly more errors but were helped measurably by the introduction of memory charts and medication organizers. In a subsequent lifespan study of adults age thirty-five to seventy-five who were taking hypertension medications, Morrell et al. found that adults aged sixty-five to seventy-five made the fewest medication errors of any age group and almost never forgot to take their hypertension medication. They hypothesized that the reason for this high level of adherence is that older adults have sufficient cognitive resources to take medication, and also have health beliefs and a schedule that are congruent with taking medication accurately.

In a later study, a complex array of cognitive, psychosocial, and contextual variables were used to understand medication adherence in a sample of rheumatoid arthritis patients who were taking many medications (Park et al. 1999). These patients were given a large battery of cognitive tests and completed questionnaires about their health beliefs, lifestyle, stress level, and perceived self-efficacy. These variables were used in structural equation models to predict adherence. In this study, 47 percent of the older adults (ages fifty-five to eighty-four) made no errors in taking their medication over a one-month period, whereas the middle-aged participants (ages thirty-four to fifty-four) had a significantly higher overall rate of nonadherence. The single best predictor of nonadherence was reporting a busy lifestyle that was high in environmental demands. Beliefs about health, anxiety, and depression were not strong predictors of adherence. Although age did not predict nonadherence, individuals who were low in cognitive ability at any age were also more likely to be non-adherent.

The importance of context

These studies suggest that it is very important to understand the context in which everyday memory occurs, and that the context may be more important than age in predicting who will remember and who will forget. In the medication adherence study (Park et al., 1999), older adults were less busy and had a more routine schedule. This type of routine lifestyle can enhance repetitive everyday memory events like taking medications by automatizing these events (Park et al., 1999). Older adults may not have to use much of their active memory resources to remember to take medications if they take pills every morning at breakfast and at night after they brush their teeth. They will automatically reach for the pill bottle due to the chaining of taking medication to other regularly occurring events. In contrast, middle-aged adults' everyday memory is functioning against considerable background noise. Middle-aged adults in the study of Park et al. (1999) reported having too many things to do and leading irregular, unscheduled lives. They were juggling so many competing tasks in their working memory that they allocated less attention to remembering to take medications, and thus forgot more often than older adults, even though they had objectively better memories than older adults. Finally, health likely has a special status for older adults who are experiencing an increasing number of chronic conditions. Failure to take medications may result in serious harm and ill health compared to middle-aged adults, who have fewer conditions and more physical reserves. Thus, older adults are likely to prioritize remembering to take medication and to develop strategies to do so.

All everyday memory events are not equally important to individuals, which explains some of the differences in findings between laboratory studies and naturalistic studies. In laboratory studies, participants are asked to remember information that is essentially irrelevant to their everyday life, and it is not possible to prioritize what is important to them and what is not. If you were traveling in Europe, you would be more likely to forget where you put the token for the subway than where you put your passport, because you would prioritize keeping track of your passport very highly, given the consequences of losing it. It seems likely that older adults will perform well on everyday tasks that are highly prioritized. Laboratory studies on everyday memory also show age differences because older adults are most disadvantaged on everyday tasks that are new to them, since they cannot rely on existing knowledge or routines that have become automatized to support their memory.

When memory supports and routines are removed from a naturalistic environment (as they are in a laboratory), older adults who function very well in their everyday environment may appear to be cognitively compromised. If, for example, an older adult were to move to a new environment, simple tasks such as finding the grocery store, remembering where the bills are kept in the new house, and remembering the new address and phone number would require expenditure of cognitive resources, which do become limited with age (see Park and Gutchess for a review). In addition, memory aids the individual may have relied upon, such as landmarks (a familiar bank or grocery), medical personnel, and friends and family who know the individual's needs, may no longer be present. An older adult in a new naturalistic environment may perform much more like older adults tested on everyday memory tasks in the laboratory. In contrast, older adults in a familiar environment may perform as well as or better than distracted middle-aged adults.

In sum, a full understanding of everyday memory functioning of older adults can occur only if the person, the cognitive demands of a task, and the environment are considered together. To the extent that environmental or task demands on cognitive resources are high, it is likely that older adults will function less effectively than younger adults. For example, if an older adult who has just had heart surgery has to take six new medications upon returning home, he or she may not fare well, because the cognitive demands of this new task are high due to its unfamiliarity. However, this same adult might may take six medications with a high degree of accuracy if this is a long-term medication regimen, because cognitive resource demands would be low due to the high familiarity of the task. Much remains to be understood about everyday memory in older adults, and this is a fertile ground for future research.

Denise C. Park Meredith Minear

See also Memory; Memory Training; Metamemory.


Frieske, D. A. P., and Park, D. C. "Memory for News in Young and Old Adults." Psychology and Aging 14, no. 1 (1999): 9098.

Morrell, R. W. P.; Park, D. C.; Kidder, D. P.; and Martin, M. "Adherence to Antihypertensive Medications Across the Life Span." Gerontologist 37, no. 5 (1997): 609619.

Park, D. C., and Gutchess, A. H. "Cognitive Aging and Everyday Life." In Cognitive Aging: A Primer. Edited by D. C. Park and N. Schwarz. Philadelphia: Psychology Press/Taylor & Francis, 2000.

Park, D. C.; Hertzog, C.; Leventhal, H.; Morrell, R. W.; Leventhal, E.; Birchmore, D.; Martin, M.; and Bennett, J. "Medication Adherence in Rheumatoid Arthritis Patients: Older is Wiser." Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 47 (1999): 172183.

Park, D. C. M.; Morrell, R. W.; Frieske, D.; and Kincaid, D. "Medication Adherence Behaviors in Older Adults: Effects of External Cognitive Supports." Psychology and Aging 7, no. 2 (1992): 252256.

Reese, C. M. C.; Cherry, K. E.; and Norris, L.E. "Practical Memory Concerns of Older Adults." Journal of Clinical Geropsychology 5, no. 4 (1999): 231244.

West, R. L. C.; Crook, T. H.; and Barron, K. L. "Everyday Memory Performance Across the Life Span: Effects of Age and Noncognitive Individual Differences." Psychology & Aging 7, no. 1 (1992): 7282.