Senior Citizens Do
Not Adapt as Fast as Young People to Unexpected Events, Study Finds
Seniors less able to
overcome habitual responses, slower in learning to adapt, didn't improve
as much when asked to vary their learned routine
Jan. 18, 2011
Does experience give seniors an edge in reacting to sudden change or are
younger people quicker to respond? A new study from Concordia
University, Montreal, shows that when a routine task is interrupted by
an unexpected event, younger adults are faster at responding.
Published in the
Journal of Gerontology, the authors say their findings have
implications for educators and for older adults in situations where
performance is crucial.
American senior citizens who say they're happy simply part of an era
that predisposed them to good cheer? Or do most people whether born
and raised in boom times or busts have it within themselves to reach
their golden years with a smile?
frequently perform a task, our reactions become automatic," says Kevin
Trewartha, first author and a PhD student in Concordia's Department of
Psychology and a researcher at the Centre for Research in Human
experienced drivers are often 'on autopilot' when they're behind the
wheel, but they do just fine, unless something unexpected happens. We're
interested in reaction speeds in different age groups when something
unexpected does occur while someone is performing a routine task."
participants took part in the study: half were 19 to 36 years old, while
the other half were 60 to 75 years old.
was asked to follow visual cues on a computer screen and press
corresponding keys on a piano keyboard. Some sequences were repeated
frequently so that participants learned to expect them, while other
sequences were randomly added at intervals to create unexpected
were less able to overcome their habitual responses when unexpected
sequences arose," says Trewartha.
"They were also
slower in learning to adapt. They didn't improve as much as younger
adults when they were asked to vary their learned routine on multiple
The study is one
of the first to use 3D motion capture technology, the same tool used in
film and animation, to link age-related cognitive changes to motor
control. In short, the research sought to break down the reaction time
of participants before they undertook a movement and the time they
required to complete that movement. This breakdown produced unexpected
team found older adults tended to take less time to plan movements but
more time to execute them perhaps because they felt uncertain about
their reactions. Trewartha and colleagues are already planning follow-up
research to study the brain activity linked with the performance of
learned and new movement patterns.
suggest that focus is even more important for older adults than for
really need to perform well at a given task, older adults should
probably seek out an environment where they can focus on the task at
hand without distractions," says senior author Karen Z.H. Li, a
professor in Concordia's Department of Psychology and a researcher at
the Centre for Research in Human Development.
"Movement Kinematics of Prepotent Response Suppression in Aging During
Conflict Adaptation," published in the Journal of Gerontology, was
authored by Kevin M. Trewartha, Virginia B. Penhune and Karen Z.H. Li
from Concordia University.
The research was
supported by funds from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the
Centre for Research in Human Development, the Canadian Foundation for
Innovation and the Fonds de Recherche sur la nature et les technologies.