Old folks can focus their attention on sights and sounds just as well as any young whippersnapper.
Previous research has indicated that elderly adults might be more distracted by sights or sounds that interfere with their focus, so a new study conducted by scientists at the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center set out to test whether this was really the case.
Our attention works in two ways, says study team member Christina Hugenschmidt, a Wake Forest graduate student. It can speed up our brain's processing of the things we want to pay attention to and slow down the processing of the things we want to ignore.
The research, presented on Oct. 29 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, focused on two types of attention, voluntary and involuntary. The first happens when you're consciously blocking out a distraction, such as ignoring the sounds of the television while you're reading the paper. The second happens when an unexpected distraction catches your attention anyway, such as a fire alarm suddenly going off while you're reading.
The researchers measured voluntary attention by comparing how much participants' responses sped up when they were expecting to hear a target and then a sound was indeed played, to how much they slowed down when they were expecting a sound and instead, a light flashed, for example.
Involuntary attention was measured with the same tasks, only participants weren't told what type of distraction to expect. To see how quickly people could switch between senses, a visual cue would be followed by another visual cue and then by an audio cue.
The half of the 48 participants who were between the ages of 65 and 90 could switch between senses just as well as the half between the ages of 16 and 38, the researchers found.
"Even as we age, this study suggests that the brain's ability to engage multisensory attention remains intact," Hugenschmidt said.
A 2005 study in Australia also showed that older adults were still just as mentally capable as they were when they were younger, despite a decrease in their brain size.
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Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.