Senior Citizens Should Schedule Mentally Challenging
Tasks in the Morning
Older adults have ‘morning brains’ finds study
showing noticeable difference in brain function across the day
6, 2014 - Senior citizens facing a challenge that will require their
brain to be working at its best should schedule it for the morning
hours. A new study finds older adults have “morning brains.” They not
only perform better on demanding cognitive tasks but also activate the
same brain networks responsible for paying attention and suppressing
distraction as younger adults, according to Canadian researchers.
The study, published online ahead of print
publication in the journal Psychology and Aging, may have yielded
some of the strongest evidence yet that there are noticeable differences
in brain function across the day for older adults.
"Time of day really does matter when testing older
adults. This age group is more focused and better able to ignore
distraction in the morning than in the afternoon," said lead author John
Anderson, a PhD candidate with the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest
Health Sciences and University of Toronto, Department of Psychology.
"Their improved cognitive performance in the
morning correlated with greater activation of the brain's attentional
control regions – the rostral prefrontal and superior parietal cortex –
similar to that of younger adults."
Anderson recommended that seniors try to schedule
their most mentally-challenging tasks for the morning time. Those tasks
could include doing taxes, taking a test (such as a driver's license
renewal), seeing a doctor about a new condition, or cooking an
In the study, 16 younger adults (aged 19 – 30) and
16 older adults (aged 60-82) participated in a series of memory tests
during the afternoon from 1 – 5 p.m. The tests involved studying and
recalling a series of picture and word combinations flashed on a
Irrelevant words linked to certain pictures and
irrelevant pictures linked to certain words also flashed on the screen
as a distraction. During the testing, participants' brains were scanned
with fMRI which allows researchers to detect with great precision which
areas of the brain are activated.
Older adults were 10 percent more likely to pay
attention to the distracting information than younger adults who were
able to successfully focus and block this information. The data
confirmed that older adults showed substantially less engagement of the
attentional control areas of the brain compared to younger adults.
Indeed, older adults tested in the afternoon were
"idling" – showing activations in the default mode (a set of regions
that come online primarily when a person is resting or thinking about
nothing in particular) indicating that perhaps they were having great
difficulty focusing. When a person is fully engaged with focusing,
resting state activations are suppressed.
When 18 senior adults were morning tested (8:30
a.m. – 10:30 a.m.) they performed noticeably better, according to two
separate behavioral measures of inhibitory control. They attended to
fewer distracting items than their peers tested at off-peak times of
day, closing the age difference gap in performance with younger adults.
Importantly, older adults tested in the morning activated the same brain
areas young adults did to successfully ignore the distracting
This suggests that 'when' older adults are tested
is important for both how they perform and what brain activity one
should expect to see.
"Our research is consistent with previous science
reports showing that at a time of day that matches circadian arousal
patterns, older adults are able to resist distraction," said Dr. Lynn
Hasher, senior author on the paper and a leading authority in attention
and inhibitory functioning in younger and older adults.
The Baycrest findings offer a cautionary flag to
those who study cognitive function in older adults. "Since older adults
tend to be morning-type people, ignoring time of day when testing them
on some tasks may create an inaccurate picture of age differences in
brain function," said Dr. Hasher, senior scientist at Baycrest's Rotman
Research Institute and Professor of Psychology at University of Toronto.
The Baycrest study was funded by the Canadian
Institutes for Health Research, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering