Although memory loss is not a normal function of age, we often begin to forget things as we grow older. New research suggests a reason may be that our brains are cluttered with irrelevant information.
Using a computer analogy, researchers believe we should defrag and empty our brain’s trash bins to improve cognitive performance.
The study is found in The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology and offers new insights into why aging is associated with a decline in memory.
Researchers from Concordia University believe older individuals have reduced learning and memory because their minds tend to be cluttered with irrelevant information when performing tasks.
“The first step of our study was to test the working memory of a younger and older population and compare the results,” said Mervin Blair, first author.
“In our study, working memory refers to the ability of both retaining and processing information.”
Thirty individuals with an average age of 23 years old, and 30 individuals were an average age of 67 years old took part in the study. Each participant was asked to perform a working memory task, which included recalling and processing different pieces of information.
“Overall, we showed that our older participants had reduced working memory compared to our younger participants,” said Blair. “Younger adults were better than the older adults at recalling and processing information.”
“Our study was novel because we looked at how the ability to recall and process information at the same time changes as people get older,” added Karen Li, senior author.
Researchers looked to see if there was a timeframe when the ability to delete irrelevant information, known as inhibition deletion, changed. This was measured using a sequential memory task. Images were displayed in a random order and participants were required to respond to each image in a pre-learned manner.
Once again, the youngsters outperformed their older counterparts.
“The older adults had poor inhibition, repeatedly responding to previously relevant images,” said Blair. Analyses were conducted to determine the relationship between the ability to clear irrelevant information and working memory ability.
“Poor inhibition predicted a decline in the recall component of working memory and it also predicted decline in the processing component of working memory,” said Blair.
For those who are having trouble remembering, Blair suggested that focusing and reducing mental clutter may help. “Reduce clutter – if you don’t, you may not get anything done.
“Basically, older adults are less able to keep irrelevant information out of their consciousness, which then impacts on other mental abilities.”
Reducing clutter from our brain is unfortunately more difficult than hitting the defrag button or clicking permanently delete for our trash.
Blair suggest methods to reduce mental clutter include performance of stress-reduction techniques. And, he recommends keeping the brain in shape by performing activities that challenge and stimulate.
Activities to do this could include learning a new language, playing an instrument, completing crossword puzzles, keeping an active social life and exercising.
Source: Concordia University