Remembering the past and imagining the future in the elderly

Gerontology. 2013;59(2):143-51. doi: 10.1159/000342198. Epub 2012 Sep 13.


Recent research has demonstrated commonalities between remembering past events and imagining future events. Behavioral studies have revealed that remembering the past and imagining the future depend on shared cognitive processes, whereas neuropsychological and neuroimaging studies have shown that many of the same brain regions are involved in both remembering the past and imagining the future. Here, we review recent cognitive and neuroimaging studies that examine remembering the past and imagining the future in elderly adults. These studies document significant changes in elderly adults' capacities to imagine future events that are correlated with their memory deficits; most strikingly, older adults tend to remember the past and imagine the future with less episodic detail than younger adults. These findings are in line with the constructive episodic simulation hypothesis [Schacter and Addis: Phil Trans R Soc B 2007;362:773-786], which holds that past and future events draw on similar information and rely on similar underlying processes, and that episodic memory supports the construction of future events by extracting and recombining stored information into a simulation of a novel event. At the same time, however, recent data indicate that non-episodic factors also contribute to age-related changes in remembering the past and imagining the future. We conclude by considering a number of questions and challenges concerning the interpretation of age-related changes in remembering and imagining, as well as functional implications of this research for everyday concerns of older adults.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Memory / physiology
  • Memory, Episodic*