As part of the study, Cindy Lustig and David Bissig conducted memory training program that has been used both with healthy older adults and people in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease, and asked what was different about people who showed big benefits from training versus those who showed little or no improvement.
The study found that in order to improve memory, one needs not only to work hard, but work smart. People in their 60s and 70s used a strategy of spending most of their time on studying the materials and very little on the test, and showed large improvements over the testing sessions.
By contrast, most people in their 80s and older spent very little time studying and instead spent most of their time on the test. These people did not do well and showed very little improvement even after two weeks of training.
"The bottom line is that in most memory training programs, the people who likely need training the most—those 80 and older and people with lower initial ability—improve the least," Lustig said.
The study concluded that what mattered for memory and what seemed to change as people got older was not only how much time one spent on trying to remember something, but where the efforts were put.
The findings of the study were published in the August issue of Psychological Science.