Differences in the content and coherence of autobiographical memories between younger and older adults: Insights from text analysis

Signy Sheldon, Jay Sheldon, Shirley Zhang, Roni Setton, Gary R. Turner, R. Nathan Spreng, Matthew D. Grilli

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Several studies have shown that older adults generate autobiographical memories with fewer specific details than younger adults, a pattern typically attributed to age-relate declines in episodic memory. A relatively unexplored question is how aging affects the content used to represent and recall these memories. We recently proposed that older adults may predominately represent and recall autobiographical memories at the gist level. Emerging from this proposal is the hypothesis that older adults represent memories with a wider array of content topics and recall memories with a distinct narrative style when compared to younger adults. We tested this hypothesis by applying natural language processing approaches to a data set of autobiographical memories described by healthy younger and older adults. We used topic modeling to estimate the distribution (i.e., diversity) of content topics used to represent a memory, and sentence embedding to derive an internal similarity score to estimate the shifts in content when narrating a memory. First, we found that older adults referenced a wider array of content topics (higher content diversity) than younger adults when recalling their autobiographical memories. Second, we found older adults were included more content shifts when narrating their memories than younger adults, suggesting a reduced reliance on choronology to form a coherent memory. Third, we found that the content diversity measures were positively related to specific detail generation for older adults, potentially reflecting age-related compensation for episodic memory difficulties. We discuss how our results shed light on how younger and older adults differ in the way they remember and describe the past. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2024 APA, all rights reserved).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)59-71
Number of pages13
JournalPsychology and aging
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1 2024
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Aging
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology


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