Here is the abstract of a Harvard University study titled “Age-Related Changes in Simulation of Future Events” published in the January 2008 issue of Psychological Science:
Episodic memory enables individuals to recollect past events as well as imagine possible future scenarios. Although the episodic specificity of past events declines as people grow older, it is unknown whether the same is true for future events. In an adapted version of the Autobiographical Interview, young and older participants generated past and future events. Transcriptions were segmented into distinct details that were classified as either internal (episodic) or external. Older adults generated fewer internal details than younger adults for past events, a result replicating previous findings; more important, we show that this deficit extends to future events. Furthermore, the number of internal details and the number of external details both showed correlations between past and future events. Finally, the number of internal details generated by older adults correlated with their relational memory abilities, a finding consistent with the constructive-episodic-simulation hypothesis, which holds that simulation of future episodes requires a system that can flexibly recombine details from past events into novel scenarios.
I wish I had access to the whole study, but I don’t.
Still, unless I’m interpreting the abstract and this article wrong, it seem like the damage caused to memory functions by aging could make it harder for us to project ourselves into the future and generate possible scenarios for ourselves.
We all know that aging can be a terrible thing because of all the aging-related diseases that it brings (some people are working on that problem), but if on top of that it reduces our ability to think ourselves into the future, it will diminish our ability to care about it.
Maybe the movie cliché with the old guy telling the young one about how he “used to have dreams, used to think constantly about the future, but not anymore” isn’t just a cynical line but also a biological condition. Apathy is a disease? I don’t want to read too much into the Havard study, but this could explain many things.
One more reason – as if we needed more – to do our best to find ways to repair the damage of aging.