Working memory in older adults declines with age, but is modulated by sex and education

Christos Pliatsikas, João Veríssimo, Laura Babcock, Mariel Y. Pullman, Dana A. Glei, Maxine Weinstein, Noreen Goldman, Michael T. Ullman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

61 Scopus citations


Working memory (WM), which underlies the temporary storage and manipulation of information, is critical for multiple aspects of cognition and everyday life. Nevertheless, research examining WM specifically in older adults remains limited, despite the global rapid increase in human life expectancy. We examined WM in a large sample (N = 754) of healthy older adults (aged 58-89) in a non-Western population (Chinese speakers) in Taiwan, on a digit n-back task. We tested not only the influence of age itself and of load (1-back vs. 2-back) but also the effects of both sex and education, which have been shown to modulate WM abilities. Mixed-effects regression revealed that, within older adulthood, age negatively impacted WM abilities (with linear, not nonlinear, effects), as did load (worse performance at 2-back). In contrast, education level was positively associated with WM. Moreover, both age and education interacted with sex. With increasing age, males showed a steeper WM decline than females; with increasing education, females showed greater WM gains than males. Together with other findings, the evidence suggests that age, sex, and education all impact WM in older adults, but interact in particular ways. The results have both basic research and translational implications and are consistent with particular benefits from increased education for women.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1308-1327
Number of pages20
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)
  • Physiology
  • General Psychology


  • Ageing
  • education
  • n back
  • sex differences
  • working memory


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