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the long view

Mental distractions may help reinforce memory in adults 60 and older – but not younger adults, according to new research from the University of Toronto.a-poselenov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

This is part of a series on aging well.

Focus, focus, focus. This mantra for success is drilled into us from childhood all the way up to our working years. In older adults, however, there may be an upside to a wandering mind.

Mental distractions may help reinforce memory in adults 60 and older – but not younger adults, according to new research from the University of Toronto. Moreover, while mental sharpness declines with age, reduced focus in older adults may enhance the kind of abstract thinking needed for problem solving and creative work. Depending on the task at hand, "the ability to cast a wider attention net and process more information can sometimes be beneficial," said Tarek Amer, a PhD candidate in psychology at the University of Toronto and lead author of a paper entitled, "Cognitive Control as a Double-Edged Sword," published in November in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Amer and colleagues reached this conclusion after evaluating older adults and college students in a study at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto. They gave participants a list of words to memorize. Then, in the next task, they asked them to press a button whenever they saw the same picture reappear on a screen. Words superimposed on the pictures were designed as distractions. Some were random, while others were among the list of words participants were supposed to remember. When participants did the word memory test for a second time, Amer said, older adults were more likely to remember them, "while our younger adults did not show this effect."

College students may be better at ignoring distractions as they focus on a task, but older adults may be better at noticing patterns in the world around them, Amer explained. For example, an older adult involved in a conversation might pick up on current road conditions from a TV across the room, whereas a younger adult might be paying closer attention to the conversation itself. Later, the older adult might make use of information from the distracting TV broadcast while planning a route home.

Geriatricians could focus on leveraging the strengths of the aging brain, instead of encouraging older adults to try brain-training exercises on a computer – the majority of which have failed to show benefit in daily life, Amer pointed out. For example, a smartphone app or game designed for older adults could include useful information in the background, or as a ticker on the screen. Presenting information repeatedly, even in the form of distractions, "seems to be beneficial for older adults," Amer said.

In healthy aging, as opposed to the cognitive changes in dementia, older adults show thinking patterns that allow them to make connections among pieces of information that are right in front of them, as well as information they have encountered in the past. "The ability to form these broad associations might be involved in creative thinking," Amer said. Creativity not only plays a role in art or music, he added, but also in activities such as experimenting with new ingredients in a recipe, or coming up with novel solutions to a social problem.

In general, older adults tend to have more focused attention in the morning and more abstract thinking later in the day, he said. College students, on the other hand, tend to be less focused in the morning but reach their peak attention in late afternoon or evening. For a writer in her 70s, late afternoon might be a good time to jot down ideas for a new book chapter. She might want to save editing for the next morning, when her mind is more primed for focused, analytical tasks.

Although the research paper did not refer to art history, changes in thinking patterns later in life might explain why artists such as da Vinci, Michelangelo, Beethoven and Picasso produced their most groundbreaking works well after they turned 50. More recently, R&B singer Bettye LaVette became a critics' darling at 59. French sculptor Louise Bourgeois developed her monumental spiders in her late 80s. And nearly three decades after releasing his most popular album, I'm Your Man, at age 54, the late Leonard Cohen completed his last album, You Want It Darker, at 82. Clearly, the youthful brain and its laser focus are not the be-all and end-all.