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date: 12 December 2019

Summary and Keywords

Episodic future thinking refers to the ability to imagine or simulate experiences that might occur in an individual’s personal future. It has been known for decades that cognitive aging is associated with declines in episodic memory, and recent research has documented correlated age-related declines in episodic future thinking. Previous research has considered both cognitive and neural mechanisms that are responsible for age-related changes in episodic future thinking, as well as effects of aging on the functions served by episodic future thinking. Studies concerned with mechanism indicate that multiple cognitive mechanisms contribute to changes in episodic future thinking during aging, including episodic memory retrieval, narrative style, and executive processes. Recent studies using an episodic specificity induction—brief training in recollecting episodic details of a recent experience—have proven useful in separating the contributions of episodic retrieval from other non-episodic processes during future thinking tasks in both old and young adults. Neuroimaging studies provide preliminary evidence of a role for age-related changes in default and executive brain networks in episodic future thinking and autobiographical planning. Studies concerned with function have examined age-related effects on the link between episodic future thinking and a variety of processes, including everyday problem-solving, prospective memory, prosocial intentions, and intertemporal choice/delay discounting. The general finding in these studies is for age-related reductions, consistent with the work on mechanisms that consistently reveals reduced episodic detail in older adults when they imagine future events. However, several studies have revealed that episodic simulation nonetheless confers some benefits for tasks tapping adaptive functions in older adults, such as problem-solving, prospective memory, and prosocial intentions, even though age-related deficits on these tasks are not eliminated or reduced by episodic future thinking.

Keywords: cognitive aging, episodic future thinking, episodic memory, Autobiographical Interview, default network

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