Aging brains have more trouble concentrating — and that may be a good thing

Tarek Amer, a psychology postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University, says that although our ability to focus our attention on specific things worsens as we age, older adults are able to retain broad swaths of information better than younger people.

Older people are more easily distracted, but researcher Tarek Amer says distractions can be beneficial

Older adults are much more likely to be distracted by external sources than younger adults, according to researcher Tarek Amer. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Originally published in March, 2020

As we get older, we become more easily distracted, but it isn't always a disadvantage, according to researchers.

Tarek Amer, a psychology postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University, says that although our ability to focus our attention on specific things worsens as we get older, our ability to take in broad swaths of information remains strong.

So in general, older adults are able to retain information that a more focused person could not.

For the last few years, Amer's research has focused mainly on cognitive control, a loose term that describes one's ability to focus their attention. His work at the University of Toronto, where he received his PhD in 2018, looked specifically at older adults aged 60 to 80. 

Amer joined Spark host Nora Young to discuss his research and how it could be implemented in practical ways.

What happens to our ability to concentrate as we get older?

There's a lot of research that shows as we get older, this ability tends to decline or is reduced with age. So essentially, what we see is that relative to younger adults, older adults have a harder time focusing on one thing while ignoring distractions. This distraction can be from the external world. This can also be internally based distractions, such as our own thoughts, which are usually not related to the task at hand.

With respect to mind wandering specifically, the literature is ... mixed. [The] typical finding is that older adults tend to, at least in lab-based tasks, mind wander less.

So I know that you've been looking, in your own research, at concentration and memory formation. So what exactly are you studying?

One of the things I was interested in is whether this [decline in the ability to concentrate] could be associated with any benefits in old age. 

For example, one thing that we showed is that when older and younger adults perform a task that includes both task-relevant as well as task-irrelevant information, older adults are actually processing both types of information. So if we give them a memory task at the end that actually is testing memory for the irrelevant information … we see that older adults actually outperform younger adults. 

One thing that this could be used for is to reduce forgetting in older adults.- Tarek Amer, psychology postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University

Could you paint me a picture of what that would look like, being presented with relevant and not relevant information?

A typical task that we tend to use [in the lab] is one that involves pictures that are superimposed with task-irrelevant words. 

They perform a task where the pictures are only relevant … where they have to, for example, identify... if their picture repeated. If two pictures in a row are the same, they would just press a button, and we tell them to ignore the superimposed words.

After they perform the task on the pictures, we give them a memory task on the words that they supposedly should have ignored in the first task. And what we see is when we test memory for these words, older adults have better memory relative to younger adults.

So in some ways, the fact that older people are ... more prone to being distracted could be helpful if the distracting information becomes relevant later on?

Exactly yeah. If you're trying to think of a real-life example of how this happens, [imagine]  you're doing some sort of task on your computer, and there is a TV in the background and ... they announce some sort of road closure or something like that, which is not related to the task you're currently performing.

Once it's actually time for you to drive home, you might be able to remember that, "Oh I actually heard on the news that I should avoid this road or something like that."

So yeah, processing this information or having a broader focus of attention, at least in a lab task, can happen.

Our inevitably changing brain does not have to be a detriment, said Amer. (Nerthuz/Shutterstock)

What might be some practical applications of this type of research, in terms of how we could be supporting older populations?

One thing that this could be used for is to reduce forgetting in older adults. 

For example, if there's information that they're supposed to remember … then presenting that information as distraction can kind of serve as a rehearsal episode that can help older adults remember important information.

One example is simply using smartphones … You can have maybe some sort of a ticker or something that is always presenting them with relevant information or reminders to take medication, for example … So even if they're not necessarily focusing on that information, having it in the background or something can possibly have some sort of benefit.

Written by Stephen Viti. Interview produced by Nora Young. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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