Recent evidence suggests that familiarity with an environment may protect against spatial memory decline for familiar objects in older adults. We investigated whether a familiar context also reduces age-related decline in spatial memory for novel objects. Twenty-four younger and 23 older participants viewed a virtual rendering of a local environment along two different routes, each through a well-known (West) or lesser-known (East) area within the environment. Older and younger participants reported being more familiar with one (i.e. West) area than the other. In each trial, participants were presented with one route and were instructed to learn ten novel objects and their locations along the route. Following learning, participants immediately completed five test blocks: an object recognition task, an egocentric spatial processing (direction judgement) task, an allocentric spatial processing (proximity judgement) task and two pen-and-paper tests to measure cognitive mapping abilities. First we found an age effect with worse performance by older than younger adults in all spatial tasks, particularly in allocentric spatial processing. However, our results suggested better memory for objects and directions, but not proximity judgements, when the task was associated with more familiar than unfamiliar contexts, in both age groups. There was no benefit of context when a separate young adult group (N = 24) was tested, who reported being equally familiar with both areas. These results suggest an important facilitatory role of context familiarity on object recognition, and in particular egocentric spatial memory, and have implications for enhancing spatial memory in older adults.
Keywords: Ageing; Familiarity context effects; Recognition; Spatial navigation; Virtual reality.