How we hold information in the mind as we age

Data collected from 29,000 players of a smartphone game has revealed changes to the way information is held in mind as we get older. 

The conducted study showed that as a compensation for information held in mind being more vulnerable to distraction, older adults seem to approach the task of putting information in mind as if distractors were present. This has implications for finding ways to improve memory in older adults, for example through cognitive training, and modifying day-to-day tasks to make them more ‘older adult friendly’.

The study was led by Dr Fiona McNab at Birmingham together with researchers at University College London, and formed part of the Wellcome Trust funded ‘Great Brain Experiment’. It was designed to investigate why we can hold less information in mind as we get older. 

Players of the memory game had to hold information in mind while ignoring distractors. These distractors appeared either when they were putting the information into memory, or when they were holding on to it. Although older volunteers were not so good at ignoring the distraction, particularly when holding information in mind, the results suggest that there is more to it than just decline. For older adults there was a stronger relationship between the number of items that could be held in memory, and their ability to ignore distraction when putting information into memory. This suggests that the way information is put into mind changes as we age. 

The study was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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