Distraction Can Help Older Adults Be Less Forgetful

By Janice Wood
November 24th, 2021
Medically reviewed by Paul Sietes, MD.

Distraction Can Help Older Adults Be Less Forgetful  A distraction learning strategy has been found to help older adults overcome age-related forgetfulness and boost their performance on memory tests.

“Older brains may be be doing something very adaptive with distraction to compensate for weakening memory,” said Renée Biss, a Ph.D. student and lead investigator for the study, conducted by scientists at Baycrest Health Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and the University of Toronto.

“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,” added Lynn Hasher, senior scientist on the study. “Poor regulation of attention by older adults may actually have some benefits for memory.”

The findings, published online in Psychological Science, have implications for designing learning strategies for the older student and equipping senior housing with relevant visual distraction cues 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 to, the researchers claim.

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 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 percent compared to words that had not been 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 computer, boosting memory, 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 computer or TV, the researchers said.

Source: Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.