Older people are nearly twice as likely as young adults to have their memory impaired by distractions such as irrelevant speech or written words.
Published in the journal Psychology and Aging, the study included 102 people between the ages of 18 and 32 (average age of 21) and 60 people between the ages of 64 and 82 (average age of 71) who participated in a series of memory and cognitive tasks.
When the participants were tested on remembering lists of words, individuals in the young test group remembered words on the list with an average accuracy of 81 percent. In comparison, the old test group’s accuracy was only 67 percent.
When irrelevant words were introduced that were to be ignored, the young test group’s accuracy dropped to 74 percent, but the accuracy of the old test group’s performance dropped to 46 percent.
“Almost any type of memory test administered reveals a decline in memory from the age of 25 on,” says coauthor Randi Martin, professor of psychology at Rice University. “However, this is the first study to convincingly demonstrate the impact of environmental interference on processing having a greater impact on older than younger adults.”
Martin says she hopes the research will encourage further research of how the brain is affected by distractions.
“From our perspective of studying neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to reorganize itself after traumatic injury or neurological disorders) and testing patients with brain damage, this research is very important,” Martin says.
“The tests used in this study are important tools in determining how the brain is affected by environmental interference, which is critical information in treating neurological disorders, including stroke and traumatic brain injuries.”
About the Authors
Amy Hodges is Senior Media Relations Specialist at Rice University in Houston, Texas. She manages the social media presence for Rice's News and Media Relations department and provides media relations support at major public and private events on and off the Rice campus. She also writes for Rice News, the university's weekly digital news publication delivered to nearly 8,500 recipients.
The study’s lead author is Corinne Pettigrew, who is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the neurology department at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The Gertrude Maurin Fund and the Social Sciences Research Institute at Rice University funded the study.
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