Older Adults No More Distractible Than Younger Set

FRIDAY Nov. 9, 2007 -- Older adults aren't more prone to distraction than younger adults when they're asked to focus their attention on a sight or sound, or when asked to switch their attention from one sense to another, a U.S. study finds.

Previous research suggested that older adults were more easily distracted than younger adults.

"There are two kinds of attention we were interested in studying -- voluntary attention and involuntary attention," lead researcher Dr. Paul J. Laurienti, associate professor of radiology at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., said in a prepared statement.

"We all know that we can choose to focus on one sense and ignore another. For instance, you might be able to ignore the sounds of the television while you read the paper. But sometimes, a very salient stimulus can capture your attention anyway -- for instance, if the fire alarm went off while you were reading the paper."

This study included 48 people (divided into two groups -- ages 18 to 38 and ages 65 to 90) who were asked to perform a series of sight/sound tasks that measured how quickly the participants were able to switch from one sense to the other. The participants were told what to expect (voluntary attention) in some tests but not told what to expect (involuntary attention) in other tests.

The results "showed that older adults still successfully engaged their attention, both in terms of speeding up and slowing down," co-author Christina E. Hugenschmidt, a Ph.D. candidate at the university's School of Medicine, said in a prepared statement. "Older adults were also quite similar to younger adults in how much of their attention was captured involuntarily. Even as we age, this study suggests that the brain's ability to engage multisensory attention remains intact."

The findings were to be presented at the Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego.

More information

The AGS Foundation for Health in Aging discusses age-related psychological and social issues.

Posted: November 2007


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