Working Around Declining Working Memory

October 2, 2020


It is no secret that as we get older, our memory declines. The bad news is that our memory starts to decline in our twenties! The good news is the decline is really gradual, usually until we pass our eightieth birthday.

There are basically three types of memory that everybody uses: long-term, short-term and working memory. Long-term memory is anything we remember – it’s generally how most of us define the term, memory. Short-term memory is the information we are currently thinking about – it’s the “receptionist” for the brain.

And Then there’s “Working Memory”…

Working memory is what we do with the information in our brains – the brain’s “scratchpad” that enables the brain to keep and use several pieces of information active while trying to do something with them, like:

  • Computing a complex math problem
  • Reading; that is, holding previous words of a sentence in your memory while reading the succeeding words
  • Verbal fluency; such as considering your word choice while speaking a sentence
  • Problem-solving
  • Carrying out a task or following instructions.

As one ages, these tasks become more difficult, thanks to working memory loss. And that is important to remember when advertising to older adults.

Because the loss of working memory results in slower information processing and less capacity to multitask, older adults have greater difficulty comprehending complicated diagrams or long, complex sentences with multiple clauses.

Another problem caused by working memory loss is that aging seniors find it harder to maintain focus and deal with distractions. Lack of focus makes it more difficult to follow the message flow of lengthy copy, resulting in the senior abandoning the content before a complete message is delivered. As the senior cohort ages further, it becomes increasingly important to eliminate potential distractions that may lurk in advertising materials and websites.

Rules for Advertising

Recognizing the difficulties created by less working memory, how do we address them? Here are three rules that will help when communicating to seniors in print or online:

  1. Be Concise: Keep communications concise and straight-forward. Sentences should be short and easy-to-read. When it comes to preparing advertising messages directed to the senior cohort, less is more.
  2. Be Sequential: Make sure your message is sequential and easy-to-follow. Avoid leaps in logic. Do not require your reader to have to locate specific information in other parts of a document or website – you risk losing them.
  3. Be Uncluttered: Keep your content uncluttered. Not only is working memory declining, many older adults are also experiencing declining vision. So don’t put anything in their way that will make their task harder or distract them from your intended message flow.

By the way, these rules are generally consistent with good advertising technique, no matter who the target of your advertising is.

Finally, keep in mind that while older adults may not receive and process information as they once did, the decline in working memory does not make them less intelligent. They just process that information differently than they used to. The advertiser’s job is to make sure roadblocks are not created that can hinder their receipt of the communication.

Your best rule-of-thumb: Keep it simple.