One area that has received increasing attention is prospective memory. Prospective memory involves remembering to perform a planned action in the future (Henry et al., 2004; Zacks et al., 2000), such as remembering to take medication. The study of prospective memory is a good illustration of how performance on everyday memory tests stacks up to performance on traditional laboratory tests.
For example, prospective memory has been examined in a naturalistic context such as remembering to take medication. Findings are somewhat counterintuitive: Older adults with rheumatoid arthritis were better at remembering to take their medications than middle-aged patients (ages 34-54) (Park, Hertzog, Leventhal, Morrell, Leventhal, Birchmore, Martin, & Bennett, 1999). In fact, despite strong evidence for age-related cognitive decline in the older adults on traditional psychometric measures, older adults had the cognitive ability to manage medications. What about the middle-aged adults? It
turned out that a busy lifestyle in middle age was the major determinant of who was at risk for forgetting to take medications. As Park et al. suggest, physicians should not assume that older adults do not have the cognitive capacity to manage medications. In fact, very busy middle-aged adults appear to be more at risk for managing medications improperly.
The success of prospective memory in naturalistic settings motivated researchers to more systematically examine the phenomenon in laboratory studies. In doing so, Einstein and McDaniel (1990) introduced a distinction between event-based and time-based prospective memory tasks. In event – based tasks, an action is to be performed when a certain external event happens, such as giving a certain person a message. A time-based task involves performing an action after a fixed amount of time, such as pressing a key every 8 minutes, or at a fixed point in time, such as remembering an appointment at 1:00 p. M. Researchers found that time – based tasks showed more age differences as long as people used self-generated strategies to remember, as these tend to decline with age; the cues in event – based tasks helped reduce age differences (Bastin & Meulemans, 2002; Einstein et al., 2000; McDaniel et al., 2003; Reese & Cherry, 2002).
It also may be that whether age differences are evident depends on the difficulty of the task. If the task is complex and places high cognitive demands on people, older adults do not perform as well as younger adults when self-initiated retrieval is required (West & Craik, 2001; West et al., 2003; Zeintl, Kliegel, & Hofer, 2007). These findings imply that, like remembering events from the past, prospective memory involves a complex interaction of aspects of information processing. It involves multiple processes ranging from controlled monitoring of the environment to being able to retrieve the intended action (McDaniel & Einstein, 2007). It also accounts for success in naturalistic settings: Older adults compensate for complexity by using and generating external cues like notes to themselves. Thus, whether there are age differences in prospective memory is a complex issue. It appears to depend on the type of task, the cues used, and what is being measured.