Multi-tasking difficulties in older adults explained by brain research

Paula Duffy's picture

The results of a new study about why older adults find it more difficult to remember things during activities we call multi-tasking, have been released today.

The reasons why seniors and the elderly have memory lapses while engaging in more than one activity at at time have now been explored in some depth by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco. The senior author of the study is Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, UCSF associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry and director of the UCSF Neuroscience Imaging Center.

"Our findings suggest that the negative impact of multitasking on working memory is not necessarily a memory problem, per se, but the result of an interaction between attention and memory,” he said.

It's all about distractions, according to the study results and the inability to discern what is significant enough to focus on or leave behind when one moves to another task. The UCSF scientists make the distinction between distractions and interruptions. Retaining the image of what an adult has seen prior to moving attention to another task is considered the heart of the matter. reported on today's publication of the study results. It is well known that multitasking negatively impacts memory in both young and older adults. The Gazzaley group declared, "The brain's capacity to ignore distractions, or irrelevant information, diminishes with age and this, too, impacts working memory." The results were obtained by use of medical imaging (MRI) to track blood flow in the brain.

The age of the groups compared in the study for research purposes were 24.5 years old as a mean for the young adults and 69.2 years old for the elderly participants. The results did not produce statistically relevant differences between the genders in this particular set of facts. Both men and women were used in each of the age groups studied.

"Participants were asked to view a natural scene and maintain it in mind for 14.4 seconds. Then, in the middle of the maintenance period, an interruption occurred: an image of a face popped up and participants were asked to determine its sex and age. They were then asked to recall the original scene."

The group of elderly participants had more trouble than the group of younger adults in doing so but, the Gazzaley group found the medical reason why. "Deficits in switching between functional brain networks underlie the impact of multitasking on working memory in older adults," said lead author Wesley C. Clapp, PhD. In other words, the interruption did not cause the younger group to lose connection to the earlier image each one saw. The older adults found it difficult to let go of the latest set of facts and images seen and return without any memory loss to the task at hand.

How does this get changed, if at all? Software of course, for brain-training exercises. There was no word on whether there will be app for the iPhone or Android devices.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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