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November 17, 2016

Researchers have discovered that an older adult’s difficulty with staying focused makes them better at thinking of creative solutions to problems and noticing patterns in the world around them. They were also found to pick up more information from their surroundings than their younger counterparts.

These strengths, such as an older adult’s ability to unknowingly process more background information, could be used to boost their memory and learning. Research literature on aging typically focuses on cognitive deficits, such as becoming more easily distracted, but these findings could lead to the development of interventions that leverage an older adult’s strengths, says first author Tarek Amer, a graduate student at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and a psychology Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto.

“Understanding the aging brain will help us develop interventions that may be more successful, because they build on the natural processing abilities of older adults rather than try to change older adults’ cognitive styles into those of younger adults,” says Dr. Lynn Hasher, senior investigator on the study and an RRI senior scientist.

For example, applications or electronic devices could present prompts in the background, such as scheduled medication reminders, to jog memory, adds Amer.

The review, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences on November 15, offers a unique perspective on the impact of distractibility and its effect on everyday tasks.

This research could also impact the way older adults and those close to them think about their strengths and weaknesses, says Amer.

“Research literature provides a rather dismal outlook on aging. In reality, many older adults get along just fine in their day-to-day lives,” says Amer. “We think this shows that aging adults don’t always need to have high cognitive control for day-to-day tasks, like having a conversation or learning.”

As next steps for this study, Amer and his colleagues continue to investigate everyday tasks performed in the real world that benefit from less cognitive control (the ability to ignore irrelevant information when completing tasks) in older adults.

The research was conducted with support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

Additional funding would help support the development of learning and memory interventions to aid older adults and people with problems staying focused.

About Baycrest Health Sciences
Headquartered on a 22-acre campus and fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest Health Sciences is unique in the world, combining a comprehensive system of care for aging adults and one of the world’s top research institutes in cognitive neuroscience (the Rotman Research Institute). Baycrest’s dedicated centres focus on mitigating the impact of age-related illness and impairment, and offer unmatched global knowledge exchange and commercialization capacity.

About Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute
The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences is a premier international centre for the study of human brain function. Through generous support from private donors and funding agencies, the institute is helping to illuminate the causes of cognitive decline in seniors, identify promising approaches to treatment, and lifestyle practices that will protect brain health longer in the lifespan.

For media inquiries:
Jonathan MacIndoe
Baycrest Health Sciences
416-785-2500 ext. 6579

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