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Posted 11.01.05

Elderly Remember Less When Distracted, Researcher Finds

COLUMBIA, MO -- It happens all the time. During a dinner party, a person is introduced to a new acquaintance. That person's attention is typically divided between registering the person's name and attending to other social obligations. Usually, the result is a forgotten new name. Divided attention occurs on a regular basis and might affect a person's ability to encode and retrieve information, usually resulting in a significant decline in memory performance. A new study by a University of Missouri-Columbia researcher found that older adults experience greater memory difficulties with divided attention than younger adults.

"This study provides further evidence that being distracted while recalling information makes it harder to perform other tasks concurrently, especially for older adults," said Moshe Naveh-Benjamin, Mizzou psychology professor.

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Naveh-Benjamin's study consisted of 32 younger and 32 older adults, averaging 20 and 70 years of age, respectively. The participants were given 12 lists of 12 word pairs: six lists with related pairs and six with unrelated pairs. The two words in each pair were spoken during the first two to three seconds in each six-second time slot. Participants then engaged in a 90-second distractor activity. Following the activity, they were given the first word of each pair and then asked to provide the second word within six seconds.

Overall, Naveh-Benjamin found that the younger adults had better memory performance than the older adults, in terms of higher accuracy and faster retrieval responses.

"More importantly, younger adults can switch to more effective encoding procedures and benefit from these procedures at the point of memory retrieval without using further resources, whereas older adults also can benefit, but only at the cost of drawing heavily on attentional resources," Naveh-Benjamin said.

"This might have implications for real-life situations. For example, when you're driving and talking on a cell phone, if you ask older adults for instructions on how to get some place, it might affect their behavior on other tasks. In other words, if they're driving, you don't want to ask them too many questions."

Naveh-Benjamin's study recently was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.



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