Recognition Memory across the Lifespan: The Impact of Word Frequency and Study-Test Interval on Estimates of Familiarity and Recollection


The goal of this study was to investigate recognition memory performance across the lifespan and to determine how estimates of recollection and familiarity contribute to performance. In each of three experiments, participants from five groups from 14 up to 85 years of age (children, young adults, middle-aged adults, young-old adults, and old-old adults) were presented with high- and low-frequency words in a study phase and were tested immediately afterwards and/or after a one day retention interval. The results showed that word frequency and retention interval affected recognition memory performance as well as estimates of recollection and familiarity. Across the lifespan, the trajectory of recognition memory followed an inverse u-shape function that was neither affected by word frequency nor by retention interval. The trajectory of estimates of recollection also followed an inverse u-shape function, and was especially pronounced for low-frequency words. In contrast, estimates of familiarity did not differ across the lifespan. The results indicate that age differences in recognition memory are mainly due to differences in processes related to recollection while the contribution of familiarity-based processes seems to be age-invariant.

Frontiers in Psychology