Multitasking Just a Bit Tougher for Older People:
MONDAY, April 11 (HealthDay News) -- If you're typing on a
computer while talking on the phone and enjoying a cappuccino, know
that you may not be able to focus on so many things at once
In fact, new research finds that older people have slightly less
of an ability to multitask, possibly because they can't refocus as
well after getting interrupted.
The difference in multitasking abilities between younger and
older people wasn't huge: older participants who took part in the
study were able to focus after a mind-diverting distraction 88
percent of the time, compared to 90 percent among younger
Still, when they're distracted, "older adults pay too much
attention to the irrelevant information" in contrast to the task at
hand, said study co-author Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist and
associate professor at the University of California, San
In the report, which appears in this week's issue of the
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers looked at how much people were able to focus when they are trying to do a task and something else vies for their attention. They wanted to specifically study how multitasking abilities evolve over the course of a lifetime.
Previous studies have shown that older people "don't process
information as well as younger adults do," Gazzaley said. "They
very frequently tell you that they have this experience: they're
sitting in the living room, and they leave the couch to get
something out of the refrigerator. They arrive there, and have no
idea what they're doing there."
This, of course, can also happen to young people, but the
question is what makes it more common in older people, so much more
common that there's a word for it: "senior moment."
In the study, researchers recruited 20 older people -- average
age 69 -- to undergo brain scans as they looked at images of a
nature scene. Then they saw nothing over several seconds or were
shown a brief image of a face. Some were told to not just look at
the image but also determine if it was of a male over the age of
At the end of the exercise, which was repeated several times,
the subjects were instructed to try to match the image that had
been shown first.
The researchers dumped the results from three participants due
to problems, and then compared the rest to those from younger
people with an average age of 25.
Older adults were able to successfully refocus and get the right
answer 96 percent of the time with no interruption and 88 percent
of the time when they had to think about the second image, Gazzaley
said. In younger adults, the numbers were 94 and 90 percent,
For older people, the problem seems to be that they have
"trouble switching back" to the issue at hand and disengaging from
the interruption, Gazzaley said.
The challenge of multitasking is that people can't really focus
on multiple things at once, said Russell A. Poldrack, a professor
of psychology and neurobiology at the University of Texas at
Austin. "We are almost always switching back and forth between the
different tasks, and there is a cost to this switching, which is
why people are nearly always worse when they try to multitask
compared to focusing on single tasks."
What to do if you have to multitask? "If one is in a situation
where multitasking is necessary, then the best way to improve it
will likely be to improve general brain health," Poldrack said,
"and the best way that we know of to improve brain health is
images of the brain at Harvard University's Whole
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