Why Your Problem-Solving Skills May Sharpen with Age

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You may get better at creative problem solving as you age, new research suggests.

Researchers reviewed more than 100 studies on problem solving and aging that were conducted from 1960 to 2016, looking at both data on people's behavior and evidence from brain scans. The scientists found that, generally, older adults' ability to focus and avoid distraction was not as strong as that of young adults' — but that this in turn may help older adults to perform better on some creativity and problem-solving tasks.

The researchers were surprised at the strength of the findings that a lowered ability to focus and avoid distraction could improve people's performance on tasks that require creativity, said Lynn Hasher, a co-author of the paper and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. This is especially surprising, she said, because the ability to focus "has previously been seen as a basic requirement for success in learning," she told Live Science. [Pay Attention! 5 Tips for Staying Focused]

The ability to focus does help people with some specific, goal-driven tasks, such as reading, the researchers said. For example, one study included in the review showed that, while reading, older adults were slowed down more than younger adults by the presence of certain words that were added to a passage in order to distract a reader. In addition, older adults had more trouble than younger adults in recalling key information they had read when distractors were present, according to that study, which was published in 2012 in the journal Experimental Aging Research.

However, the ability to focus does not help — and may actually hinder — people's performance on tasks that require broader attention, Hasher and her colleagues concluded. For example, in a 2016 study, published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, researchers gave participants a test in which they were shown pictures of faces with names superimposed over them. Although the study participants were instructed to ignore the names, the researchers tested the people on which names they remembered. Surprisingly, older participants were better at matching the faces to the names than the younger participants were, even though memory for faces and names tends to decline with age.

Another study, published in 2006 in the journal Psychology and Aging, similarlyfound that adults ages 60 to 75 had a better memory for "distractors" than young adults ages 18 to 30 did. In this study, participants looked at drawings with "distractor" words superimposed over them. Again, although the participants were instructed to ignore the words, the researchers tested them on whether they remembered the words. Results showed that the older participants outperformed their younger counterparts.

Together, these studies suggest that although young adults may be better at disregarding distracting information, they later have poorer recall of this information.

The researchers concluded in their review that older adults' "broader scope of attention" is better suited for tasks that require integrating larger amounts of information — such as solving problems in creative ways, or recognizing patterns over time — rather than tasks that require a narrower focus.

An area of the brain called the frontoparietal region is associated with focus, processing relevant information and disregarding distracting information, the researchers said. Evidence suggests that, as people age, this region's activity decreases, which may contribute to the reduced ability to focus and avoid distractions, the researchers said. However, this decrease in activity may allow older adults to draw on a broader range of knowledge to come up with creative solutions to problems.

For example, a 2005 study published in Brain found that participants with a single brain lesion in the front of the brain (as determined by a CT or MRI scan) were better at solving a creative math problem than participants who had no lesions in their brains. While 82 percent of those with the lesion could solve the problem, only 43 percent of participants with no lesion could do so. [Why You Forget: 5 Strange Facts About Memory]

The authors of the review noted that more research is needed to show whether a reduced ability to focus and weed out distractions affects everyday behavior. In addition, the boundary between older and younger adults is not concrete, and was not specifically defined in the review.

Of course, people's ability to focus doesn't depend only on their age. A positive mood, lack of sleep and consumption of alcohol can all contribute to a general lack of focus and increased distraction, so there may be more than one avenue to achieve better problem-solving, the researchers said.

Originally published on Live Science.

Live Science Contributor