This overview provides both theoretical and empirical reasons for emphasizing practice and familiar skills as a practical strategy for enhancing cognitive functioning in old age. Our review of empirical research on age–related changes in memory and language reveals a consistent pattern of spared and impaired abilities in normal old age. Relatively preserved in old age is memory performance involving highly practised skills and familiar information, including factual, semantic and autobiographical information. Relatively impaired in old age is memory performance that requires the formation of new connections, for example, recall of recent autobiographical experiences, new facts or the source of newly acquired facts. This pattern of impaired new learning versus preserved old learning cuts across distinctions between semantic memory, episodic memory, explicit memory and perhaps also implicit memory. However, familiar verbal information is not completely preserved when accessed on the output side rather than the input side: aspects of language production, namely word finding and spelling, exhibit significant age–related declines. This emerging pattern of preserved and impaired abilities presents a fundamental challenge for theories of cognitive ageing, which must explain why some aspects of language and memory are more vulnerable to effects of ageing than others. Information–universal theories, involving mechanisms such as general slowing that are independent of the type or structure of the information being processed, require additional mechanisms to account for this pattern of cognitive aging. Information–specific theories, where the type or structure of the postulated memory units can influence the effects of cognitive ageing, are able to account for this emerging pattern, but in some cases require further development to account for comprehensive cognitive changes such as general slowing.