Older Adults Who Experience More Memory Loss Also Struggle with Knowledge Accumulation

Memory issues are apt to hit us as we age, and we may find ourselves focusing more on the fact that our ability to accumulate knowledge is intact. A new study, however, finds that adults who experience more memory loss may also have a harder time gaining new knowledge.

An international team of researchers from Germany, Sweden, and the United States looked at the impacts of fluid ability loss on crystallized abilities. Fluid abilities relate to factors like memory, while crystallized abilities relate to an individual’s accumulated knowledge. The team’s findings, published in the journal Science Advances, show that people who have the most losses in fluid abilities demonstrate the smallest number of crystallized gains. Meanwhile, those who mostly maintain their fluid abilities are able to gain the most new knowledge.

The researchers say this is contrary to what was previously thought.


Ulman Lindenberger is the director of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, which was involved in the study. He explains, “Our findings call for a revision of textbook knowledge. If those who show the largest fluid losses also show the smallest crystallized gains, then this places tighter limits on the compensatory power of knowledge than previously believed.”

To understand how fluid and crystallized abilities are linked, the team looked at data from the Virginia Cognitive Aging Project and the Betula study out of Sweden. Combined, nearly 9,000 participants ranging in age from 18 to 99 were tracked over a period of up to 18 years. The researchers used several methods to measure how these participants’ changes in memory related to their changes in knowledge accumulation.

The team says that while it was thought that as fluid abilities declined, crystallized abilities should compensate, that did not occur. Instead, those who demonstrated greater losses of their fluid abilities also had the fewest crystallized gains. Meanwhile, those who mostly maintained their memory showed larger gains in knowledge.


Dr. Elliot Tucker-Drob, the study’s lead author and professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Psychology and Population Research Center, says, “In intelligence research, people often talk about a general factor or g-factor of intelligence that expresses the commonality of different cognitive abilities. In previous work, we have already demonstrated that not only individual differences in cognitive abilities at a given point in time can be captured by a general factor, but also changes of cognitive abilities. Our new results confirm this finding and demonstrate that changes in crystallized abilities can indeed be subsumed under a general factor of common change.”

The team says these findings should encourage people to make lifestyle choices known to help protect cognitive health later in life. The National Institute on Aging says some steps you can take include managing high blood pressure, eating healthy foods, being physically active, keeping your mind active, maintaining social relationships, and managing stress.

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