Alzheimer's, Dementia & Mental Health
Seniors Remember Better Than Young Adults in Tests
Using Distractions to Enhance Memory
Growing body of science showing older brains are
adept at processing irrelevant and relevant information in the
environment, without conscious effort, to aid memory
Feb. 22, 2013 – Compelling evidence that older
adults can eliminate forgetfulness and perform as well on memory tests
as younger adults has been discovered by scientist at Baycrest Health
Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and the University of
Toronto’s Psychology Department. The secret was repeating words as
Scientists used a distraction learning strategy to
help older adults overcome age-related forgetting and boost their
performance to that of younger adults. Distraction learning sounds like
an oxymoron, but a growing body of science is showing that older brains
are adept at processing irrelevant and relevant information in the
environment, without conscious effort, to aid memory performance.
“Older brains may be be doing something very
adaptive with distraction to compensate for weakening memory,” said
Renée Biss, lead investigator and PhD student. “In our study we asked
whether distraction can be used to foster memory-boosting rehearsal for
older adults. The answer is yes!”
“To eliminate age-related forgetfulness across
three consecutive memory experiments and help older adults perform like
younger adults is dramatic and to our knowledge a totally unique
finding,” said Lynn Hasher, senior scientist on the study and a leading
authority in attention and inhibitory functioning in younger and older
“Poor regulation of attention by older adults may actually have
some benefits for memory.”
The findings, published online this week in
Psychological Science, ahead of print publication, have intriguing
implications for designing learning strategies for the mature, older
student and equipping senior-housing with relevant visual distraction
cues throughout the living environment that would serve as rehearsal
opportunities to remember things like an upcoming appointment or
medications to take, even if the cues aren’t consciously paid attention
In three experiments, healthy younger adults
recruited from the University of Toronto (aged 17– 27) and healthy older
adults from the community (aged 60 – 78) were asked to study and recall
a list of words after a short delay and again, on a surprise test, after
a 15-minute delay.
During the delay period, half of the studied words
occurred again as distraction while people were doing a very simple
attention task on pictures. Although repeating words as distracters had
no impact on the memory performance of young adults, it boosted older
adults’ memory for those words by 30% relative to words that had not
repeated as distraction.
“Our findings point to exciting possibilities for
using strategically-placed relevant distraction as memory aids for older
adults – whether it’s in classroom, at home or in a long term care
environment,” said Biss.
While older adults are watching television or
playing a game on a tablet, boosting memory for goals (such as
remembering to make a phone call or send a holiday card) could be
accomplished by something as simple as running a stream of target
information across the bottom of their tablet or TV.
The study was supported by a grant from the
Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Natural Sciences and
Engineering Research Council of Canada.
About Baycrest Health Sciences
Headquartered on a 22-acre campus in Ontario and
fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest is a global
leader in innovative care delivery and cutting-edge cognitive
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