Why older adults may struggle to stay focused

The downside of physical activity for working memory in older adults


Aging can impact attentional control, leading to difficulties in daily activities requiring focus. Older adults are more easily distracted due to age-related changes in the brain. Investigating this decline is crucial to develop interventions for improving cognitive function in older adults.

A new study led by Weiwei Zhang at the University of California, Riverside, suggests that older adults are more susceptible to distractions during physical tasks compared to younger adults. The study found that under high physical effort, older adults were less likely to focus on task-relevant information and ignore distracting information, indicating heightened distractibility.

The study examined the effects of physical exertion and distractions on short-term memory in both younger and older adults.

“Action and cognition, which interact often in daily life, are sensitive to the effects of aging,” said graduate student Lilian Azer, the first author of the research paper published in the journal Psychology and Aging. “Our study found that in comparison to younger adults, older adults are less likely to ignore distractors in their surroundings when simultaneously engaging in a cognitive task and an effortful physical task. Ignoring task-irrelevant items declines with age and this decline is greater when simultaneously performing a physical task — a frequent occurrence in daily life.”

Azer suggests that age-related differences may be more pronounced when task demands increase, like during physical exertion or when there are more distractors. The study examined the effects of a physical task on working memory and inhibitory control, which are crucial cognitive processes involved in retaining and focusing on relevant information while ignoring irrelevant distractions.

The study involved 19 older adults aged 65-86 and 31 younger adults aged 18-28. Participants were asked to grip a hand dynamometer at 5% or 30% of their strength while performing a short-term memory task. They were required to remember the orientation of red bars while ignoring blue bars serving as distractors.

The study investigated the impact of simple physical activity on working memory and inhibitory control in younger and older adults. The results suggest that effortful physical exertion impairs cognitive control, leading to reduced working memory accuracy and greater distractor interference in older adults, especially when distractors are present. The study highlights the negative impact of reduced inhibitory control and physical abilities on the daily functioning of older adults.

With the number of older Americans expected to increase, understanding the age-related declines in physical and mental functions is crucial. Zhang stressed the importance of understanding how cognitive and physical actions interact to help individuals be more aware of how distracting information in their environment can impair working memory.

Normal cognitive aging causes a decline in the ability to ignore distractors, which is associated with the prefrontal cortex. Effortful physical or cognitive activities can cause distractions, making it more difficult for older adults to focus on task-relevant information.

In conclusion, the study suggests that older adults may have heightened distractibility, as they were found to be less likely to ignore distracting information and focus on task-relevant information under high physical effort. The decline in our ability to ignore distractors as we age is a result of normal cognitive aging, and inhibitory control may suffer during concurrent physical and cognitive tasks. It is important to be aware of this impairment and minimize distractions or engage in physical and cognitive tasks separately.

The research team plans to investigate further the impact of effortful physical action on cognitive function and the role of arousal in inhibitory control.

Journal Reference

  1. Azer, L., Xie, W., Park, H.-B., & Zhang, W. (2023). Detrimental effects of effortful physical exertion on a working memory dual-task in older adults. Psychology and Aging. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1037/pag0000746
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