Studies have found that elderly people tend to have trouble switching between different tasks – or multi-tasking. Researchers knew it was happening, but have been unable to explain it, or even prove it. A new study, led by University of California at San Francisco neuroscientist Adam Gazzeley, has taken advantage of newer technology in brain scans and is hoping to come up with a clearer picture. The question also remains that if you cannot multi-task then will you be able to memorize or remember things easily.

Young people are able to switch from one mental activity to another quickly and distractions are not a problem. Older people tend to have trouble juggling more than one task at a time, or at least have trouble getting back to their original train of thought after being distracted. This is why many older adults are looking for ways to improve their memory.

Gazzaley and his colleagues used a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scan to compared the brains of 20 young people with the average age of 25, and 20 elderly people with the average age of 69.

Each subject in the study was shown a photo of a landscape and asked to remember what they saw. They were then shown a portrait of a face (a distraction) and asked to answer a few questions about the portrait. Seconds later they were shown a different landscape and asked to compare it to the first.

What they found was that both sets of subjects, the young and the elderly, showed similar brain activity when shown the face portrait. The differences came when the older adults tried to move on to focusing on the second landscape. The scans showed they lingered over the image of the face, and were not able to push the image out of their minds as quickly as their younger counterparts.

The findings, published in the April 12, 2011 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, were not as they had believed would happen. It wasn’t that the seniors were not paying attention, but their reflexes were slower, making it hard for them to return to where they were before they were distracted. Imagine if you if your reflexes are slow it will be harder to improve your memory because your mind will be moving at a slower pace.

According to Grazzaley, “The paper is a snapshot. It raises many more questions than answers, and resolves few.”

The process of holding short-term memory, such as what happens when we are multi-tasking involves our working memory portion of our brain. The question is, does the reaction of the older adults come from the culture they were raised in, where there were less distractions like cell phones and iPads than there are today – or is it due to their brains becoming less flexible over time? If it’s due to aging, when does the deterioration begin to take place? And, if so, is it possible to strengthen the plasticity? I believe that everyone of any age should look for ways to maintain a healthy sharper brain that multi tasks and moves quickly and should try to improve your memory with memory training.

My name is Ron White. I am a two-time USA Memory Champion , memory training expert, and memory keynote speaker. Hopefully additional studies will find out what causes the plasticity of our brains to change as we age, and when they do they could unravel the secrets to uncovering the reason behind Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.





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