Autobiographical memory specificity (AMS) reduces with increasing age and is associated with depression, social problem-solving and functional limitations. However, ability to switch between general and specific, as well as between positive and negative retrieval, may be more important for the strategic use of autobiographical information in everyday life. Ability to switch between retrieval modes is likely to rely on aspects of executive function. We propose that age-related deficits in cognitive flexibility impair AMS, but the “positivity effect” protects positively valenced memories from impaired specificity. A training programme to improve the ability to flexibly retrieve different types of memories in depressed adults (MemFlex) was examined in non-depressed older adults to determine effects on AMS, valence and the executive functions underlying cognitive flexibility. Thirty-nine participants aged 70+ (MemFlex, n = 20; control, n = 19) took part. AMS and the inhibition aspect of executive function improved in both groups, suggesting these abilities are amenable to change, although not differentially affected by this type of training. Lower baseline inhibition scores correlated with increased negative, but not positive AMS, suggesting that positive AMS is an automatic process in older adults. Changes in AMS correlated with changes in social problem-solving, emphasising the usefulness of AMs in a social environment.
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Funding: This work was supported by Abbeyfield Society