The Role of Working Memory in Age-Related Emotional Memory Bias

Affect Sci. 2022 Aug 31;3(3):686-695. doi: 10.1007/s42761-022-00134-5. eCollection 2022 Sep.


Aging is accompanied by deterioration in both working memory (WM) and long-term memory (LTM), yet whether these changes are related is not understood. Sleep plays a role in the formation of LTM in young adults, but the findings in older adults are not as clear. The types of memories we store also shift with age as young adults preserve a higher proportion of negative experiences when compared to older adults. The reason for this age-related change in emotional memory bias is also not clear; however, some studies have suggested that WM changes across aging may be an important factor. In the current study, we examined performance in WM and emotional LTM in younger and older adults. We added a daytime nap in half the subjects to examine a possible role of sleep on emotional LTM. In the morning, 93 younger (18-39) and 121 older (60-85) adults completed a WM task. Subjects also encoded neutral or negative word pairs and provided valence and arousal ratings for each pair. After half the subjects took a daytime nap, LTM was examined, and valence and arousal ratings were reassessed. Results indicate that older adults showed worse recognition for negative word pairs compared with neutral, as well as decreased negative valence ratings in the afternoon. This decrease in emotional reactivity was correlated with better LTM performance. In contrast, younger adults performed better on the negative compared to neutral word pairs, with no change in emotional reactivity and no association between emotional reactivity and LTM. In addition, WM was positively related to LTM in younger, but not in older adults. Lastly, no differences were shown across sleep, regardless of age. Our findings suggest that the emotional memory bias may be associated with the emotional saliency of the information in older adults, and with WM capacity in younger adults.

Supplementary information: The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1007/s42761-022-00134-5.

Keywords: Aging; Emotional bias; Long-term memory; Working memory.