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Attention and memory components in every-day cognitive problems in aging

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Attention and memory: age doesn’t matter

As we age, we experience cognitive changes. A European project contradicts the common perception, and shows that in real-life situations, attention and memory are largely unaffected by ageing.

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Age-related cognitive changes include slower inductive reasoning, decline in perceptual speed, slower problem-solving, poorer retrieval of past events, as well as diminished spatial orientation. Cognitive functions are assessed by neuropsychological tests or tasks linked to particular neural system functioning. The typical cognitive-neuroscience paradigms are quite artificial tasks designed to look at cognitive functions, such as attention, memory, or decision-making, in isolation. For example, in a memory task, you learn a list of items that you must later recognise or recall. In an attention task, you must focus on certain information in the presence of distracting information. These so-called ‘process-pure’ tests have been extremely valuable for studying the mechanisms underlying specific cognitive functions; however, they cannot provide information on how cognitive functions synergistically affect performance.

Experimental assessments that recapitulate real-world scenarios

The key objective of the MEMORAGE project was to develop new neuropsychological assessments that are in accordance with and can measure the complex dynamics of real-world tasks. The research was undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) programme and involved the development of laboratory visual search tasks that share important features with searches in the real world, like shopping in a supermarket. As the MSCA research fellow Iris Wiegand explains: “These tasks rely on memory (what was on my shopping list?), attention (where are these items among the other products?) and decisions (do I keep searching in this aisle or do I move on to another?).” The MEMORAGE complex visual search tasks were tested on well-educated younger (18-30 years old) and older (65+) adult participants. The goal was to measure how attention, memory and decision-making result in age related performance variations. “Although older adults were consistently slower, their memory and attention functions appeared surprisingly well preserved,” outlines Wiegand. When it came to decision-making, older adults employed an exploitative, conservative search strategy compared to younger adults who tended to look for new options.

MEMORAGE implications and prospects

The finding that attention and memory functions in complex tasks are largely unaffected by ageing is very encouraging. It contradicts results from ‘process-pure’ experiments that infer that reduced attention and memory are hallmarks of ageing. “Our findings suggest that these age deficits are reduced or even absent under certain task conditions that are more similar to real-world search tasks,” concludes Wiegand. At the same time, they suggest that conventional tests may overestimate age related deficits. Future efforts will focus on testing the MEMORAGE complex visual search tasks on a broader population as well as patients who show severe deficits in attention and/or memory. Concomitant recording of brain activity will help delineate brain function in high-performing older adults compared to younger adults and the potential implication of compensatory activity that supports their performance. Collectively, this will lead to improved understanding of the neurocognitive mechanisms and will lay the foundation towards appropriate strategies that meet the needs of our ageing population.

Keywords

MEMORAGE, attention, memory, ageing, cognitive functions, decision-making, visual search task

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