Older people can struggle to recall information because irrelevant information distracts them, a new study finds.
In the study both over-60s and college students were shown pictures of everyday objects.
They were told to focus on some aspects of the pictures and ignore others.
Both age groups found it hard to ignore the distractions, but both did well at remembering what they were supposed to focus on.
Older people, though, were more easily put off their answer, Dr Audrey Duarte, who led the study, explained:
“…when we asked if they were sure, older people backed off their answers a bit.
They weren’t as sure.”
Recordings of electrical brain activity suggested that older people were making more effort to try and reconstruct their memories.
Dr Duarte said:
“While trying to remember, their brains would spend more time going back in time in an attempt to piece together what was previously seen.
But not just what they were focused on — some of what they were told to ignore got stuck in their minds.”
Older people, it turns out, find it harder to block out irrelevant information.
Dr Duarte gives the example of going to a cocktail party and later on struggling to remember a particular conversation:
“When it’s time to remember the conversation, they may struggle a bit to recall some details.
That’s because their brains are also trying to decipher the other noises.
What music was playing?
What was the couple next to them saying?
That extra stuff shouldn’t be in their memories at all, but it is.
And it negatively impacts their ability to clearly remember the conversation.”
Younger people had to use less brain power to remember, the researchers found.
This was because they tended not to record the irrelevant information.
Since older people find it harder to focus, they can be more prone to scams, Dr Duarte said:
“If someone tells you that you should remember it one way, you can be more easily persuaded if you lack confidence.
This memory clutter that’s causing low confidence could be a reason why older adults are often victims of financial scams, which typically occur when someone tries to trick them about prior conversations that didn’t take place at all.”
(My apologies to senior PsyBlog readers for the reference to your cherished memories as ‘clutter’!)
The study was published in the journal Neuropsychologia (James et al., 2016).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Brain image from Shutterstock