Memory for sequences of events impaired in typical aging

Timothy A. Allen, University of California, Irvine
Andrea M. Morris, University of California, Irvine
Shauna M. Stark, University of California, Irvine
Norbert J. Fortin, University of California, Irvine
Craig E.L. Stark, University of California, Irvine


Typical aging is associated with diminished episodic memory performance. To improve our understanding of the fundamental mechanisms underlying this age-related memory deficit, we previously developed an integrated, cross-species approach to link converging evidence from human and animal research. This novel approach focuses on the ability to remember sequences of events, an important feature of episodic memory. Unlike existing paradigms, this task is nonspatial, nonverbal, and can be used to isolate different cognitive processes that may be differentially affected in aging. Here, we used this task to make a comprehensive comparison of sequence memory performance between younger (18-22 yr) and older adults (62-86 yr). Specifically, participants viewed repeated sequences of six colored, fractal images and indicated whether each item was presented "in sequence" or "out of sequence." Several out of sequence probe trials were used to provide a detailed assessment of sequence memory, including: (i) repeating an item from earlier in the sequence ("Repeats"; e.g., ABADEF), (ii) skipping ahead in the sequence ("Skips"; e.g., ABDDEF), and (iii) inserting an item from a different sequence into the same ordinal position ("Ordinal Transfers"; e.g., AB3DEF). We found that older adults performed as well as younger controls when tested on well-known and predictable sequences, but were severely impaired when tested using novel sequences. Importantly, overall sequence memory performance in older adults steadily declined with age, a decline not detected with other measures (RAVLT or BPS-O). We further characterized this deficit by showing that performance of older adults was severely impaired on specific probe trials that required detailed knowledge of the sequence (Skips and Ordinal Transfers), and was associated with a shift in their underlying mnemonic representation of the sequences. Collectively, these findings provide unambiguous evidence that the capacity to remember sequences of events is fundamentally affected by typical aging.