Incidental Learning: A Systematic Review of Its Effect on Episodic Memory Performance in Older Age

Wagnon, Carole Chantal; Wehrmann, Katharina; Klöppel, Stefan; Peter, Jessica (2019). Incidental Learning: A Systematic Review of Its Effect on Episodic Memory Performance in Older Age. Frontiers in aging neuroscience, 11, p. 173. Frontiers Research Foundation 10.3389/fnagi.2019.00173

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Episodic memory is the capacity to encode, store, and retrieve information of specific past events. Several studies have shown that the decline in episodic memory accompanies aging, but most of these studies assessed memory performance through intentional learning. In this approach, the individuals deliberately acquire knowledge. Yet, another method to evaluate episodic memory performance–receiving less attention by the research community–is incidental learning. Here, participants do not explicitly intent to learn. Incidental learning becomes increasingly important over the lifespan, since people spend less time in institutions where intentional learning is required (e.g., school, university, or at work). Yet, we know little how incidental learning impacts episodic memory performance in advanced age. Likewise, the neural mechanisms underlying incidental learning in older age remain largely unknown. Thus, the immediate goal of this review was to summarize the existing literature on how incidental learning changes with age and how neural mechanisms map onto these age-related changes. We considered behavioral as well as neuroimaging studies using incidental learning paradigms (alone or in combination with intentional learning) to assess episodic memory performance in elderly adults. We conducted a systematic literature search on the Medline/PubMed, Cochrane, and OVID SP databases and searched the reference lists of articles. The search yielded 245 studies, of which 34 concerned incidental learning and episodic memory in older adults. In sum, these studies suggest that aging particularly affects episodic memory after incidental learning for cognitively demanding tasks. Monitoring deficits in older adults might account for these findings since cognitively demanding tasks need increased attentional resources. On a neuronal level, dysregulation of the default-mode-network mirrors monitoring deficits, with an attempt to compensate through increased frontal activity. Future (neuroimaging) studies should systematically evaluate retrieval tasks with diverging cognitive load and consider the influence of attention and executive functions in more detail.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Review Article)


04 Faculty of Medicine > University Psychiatric Services > University Hospital of Geriatric Psychiatry and Psychotherapy

Graduate School:

Graduate School for Health Sciences (GHS)

UniBE Contributor:

Wagnon, Carole Chantal, Wehrmann, Katharina, Klöppel, Stefan, Peter, Jessica


600 Technology > 610 Medicine & health




Frontiers Research Foundation




Jessica Peter

Date Deposited:

12 Aug 2019 12:03

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 15:29

Publisher DOI:


PubMed ID:





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