Explaining age differences in working memory: The role of updating, inhibition, and shifting

Sascha Zuber (Corresponding Author), Andreas Ihle, Vanessa M. Loaiza, Katharina Schnitzspahn, Christoph Stahl, Louise H Phillips, Christoph P Kaller, Matthias Kliegel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)
38 Downloads (Pure)


Working memory (WM) represents the capacity to store and process a limited amount of information. To better understand developmental changes of WM forms a key topic in research on neuropsychology of aging. Previous studies reveal age differences in WM and in executive functions (EFs). Although EFs are seen as essential mechanisms in WM, the specific relation between the two cognitive constructs thus far remains unclear. The present study set out to investigate the unique roles of the three main facets of EFs (i.e., updating, inhibition, and shifting) in accounting for age-related variability in WM. Therefore, 175 younger and 107 older adults performed a battery of cognitive tests, including measures of WM, EFs, and processing speed. A set of statistical approaches, including regression analyses and path models, was used to examine the cognitive correlates that could explain individual and age-related variance in WM. Significant age differences were found in WM and on EF measures. Regression analyses and path models showed that updating and inhibition, but not shifting, played a major role in explaining age-related variance in WM. In sum, findings suggest that updating and inhibition are most influential for age differences in WM. The results further show that age and processing speed do not significantly contribute to variability in WM performance beyond executive resource. The present findings have implications for conceptual and developmental theories of WM and may further offer an initial empirical basis for developing possible trainings to improve older adults' WM performance by strengthening the efficiency of updating and inhibitory processes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)191-208
Number of pages18
JournalPsychology & Neuroscience
Issue number2
Early online date4 Oct 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2019

Bibliographical note

We declare no conflict of interest.
We thank Melanie Zeintl for assistance with setting up the study and data collection.
Matthias Kliegel received support from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). Christoph Stahl and Christoph Kaller received support from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF, grants #01GW0730 and #01GW0710).


  • working memory
  • executive functions
  • aging
  • path model
  • updating
  • inhibition
  • Aging
  • Executive functions
  • Updating
  • Inhibition
  • Working memory


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