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Older Adults Can Improve Their Memory

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Older Adults Can Improve Their Memory

Getting older doesn’t have to mean becoming more forgetful. Older brains are able to adapt by using distraction to improve memory.

The older we get, the more we tend to forget things. Eventually, we may develop memory problems. I’m lost if I don’t make to-do lists and keep track of activities and projects online in my Outlook calendar. Despite the convenience of online calendars and smart phones, I think the old-fashioned way of writing something down helps it stick in my mind.

But as we age, are we doomed to a life of forgetfulness? Will we eventually forget where we put our to-do lists? Researchers at Toronto’s Baycrest Health Sciences’ Torman Research Institute offer hope that older adults can overcome forgetfulness and do just as well on memory tests as younger adults.

Distraction can be beneficial

It seems counterintuitive, but researchers found that older brains can use distraction to compensate for poorer memory. Older brains process relevant—and irrelevant—information in our environment to help us remember.

"Older brains may 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!"

Research published online in Psychological Science details three experiments performed. In one study, a group of students aged 17 to 27, and a group of adults aged 60 to 78, were asked to memorize a list of words, then recall them. Both groups were given a surprise memory test 15 minutes later. In the meantime, half of the words previously memorized appeared in a task on pictures.

Improved recall

During the surprise test, younger adults showed no improvement in recall, but older adults had 30 percent improved recall of the words repeated as a distraction in the picture task.

Boosting older adults’ memory could be as simple as running a stream of information across the bottom of their TV or computer screens.

 "Our findings point to exciting possibilities for using strategically-placed relevant distraction as memory aids for older adults— whether it's in a classroom, at home or in a long-term care environment," said Biss.

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