Distractions Can Hurt Memory

Older people are much likelier to suffer memory and cognitive impairment when they’re presented with “environmental distractions” such as material that’s irrelevant to the task at hand.

The finding, by psychologists from Rice University and Johns Hopkins University, is the first to convincingly demonstrate impairment from environmental distractions, such as irrelevant speech, during tasks.

In their analysis, the researchers looked at 102 people between the ages of 18 and 32, and 60 people between the ages of 64 and 82. All participated in a series of tasks involving memory and cognition.

When the participants were tested on remembering lists of words, people in the young test group remembered them with an accuracy rate of 81 percent. The older test group’s accuracy was 67 percent. When irrelevant words were introduced (i.e,. words that were to be ignored0, the younger test group’s accuracy dropped to 74 percent, and the accuracy of the older test group dropped to 46 percent.

“Almost any type of memory test administered reveals a decline in memory from the age of 25 on,” said Randi Martin, the Elma W. Schneider Professor of Psychology at Rice and the study’s co-author. “However, this is the first study to convincingly demonstrate the impact of environmental interference on processing having a greater impact on older than younger adults.”

Martin said that the finding could fuel further research into the brain’s ability to “reorganize itself” after traumatic injury neurological disorder.

The study was published in the journal Psychology and Aging.