Aging and memory: changing perspective

U of T psychology research reveals older adults benefit from ‘distraction learning’ techniques

Researchers from the University of Toronto Department of Psychology and the Baycrest Health Sciences’ Rotman Research Institute (rri) have published a unique study that could alter the ways in which aging and memory are understood.

After extensive research, the project has determined that the use of distraction learning techniques can help older adults to overcome forgetfulness and perform better on memory tests.

“Although distraction can in many ways be disruptive to memory function and to tasks with specific target goals, the study shows how distraction techniques could help older adults remember certain things, such as appointments,” confirms Renee Biss, a third-year PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology at U of T and the lead researcher on the study.

Over the course of three experimental trials, test subjects were required to study and recall a list of words both immediately and 15 minutes later. During the interval, the subjects were asked to pay attention to specific pictures while selected words from the list were placed in the background as distractions. Younger adults between the ages 17-27, sampled from the University of Toronto were not affected by the distractions. A substantial 30 per cent of adults aged 60 to 78 sampled from the community at large were able to remember the words that had been used as distractions.

The results, published February 20 in Psychological Science, suggest stimulating possibilities for future research associated with memory and aging, the development of mature learning programs, and methods of caring for the elderly. According to Dr. Lynn Hasher, the project’s senior and supervising researcher, the unique study may also have a substantial impact on the everyday lives of mature adults. “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,” explained Biss in an interview with Baycrest News.

Although distraction learning may seem to be an oxymoron, Biss maintains that the study reflects a “need to look past the traditionally negative ways in which aging and changing attention patterns are perceived.” A mature brain processes information differently than a younger brain does, and such differences must be incorporated into a comprehensive understanding of memory.

A few weeks after the experiment had been successfully completed, Biss took the time to comment on her experience as a graduate student at the University of Toronto and working with Hasher.

After obtaining an undergraduate degree from McGill University, Biss decided to pursue a PhD in psychology under the supervision of Hasher. When asked about her decision to study in Toronto, Biss noted that aside from personal ties to the city, “U of T offers graduate students some of the best opportunities in the world to pursue research in psychology, aging and cognition.”

The city appears to nurture an active and enthusiastic medical community that encourages research and development, a community that the university is undeniably a part of. It was also noted that the size of the university allowed for various kinds of communication and cooperation to emerge between related fields.

Hasher, can be seen as a relevant example of collaborative connections; aside from being a senior scientist within the Department of Psychology at U of T, Hasher works at rri. Shared common interests between institutes such as rri and the University of Toronto’s Department of Psychology create opportunities that make both the university and the city of Toronto great communities for research.

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