As we age, our brains become less efficient at ignoring distraction, and we tend to pick up unnecessary information from our surroundings. In a new Canadian study, researchers tapped into this natural memory change in order to help older adults remember the names of strangers, an ability that also tends to diminish as we get older.
“This strategy harnessed a natural change that occurs as we get older and used it to boost memory for information that is meaningful to older adults,” said Dr. Kelly Murphy, senior author on the study, a clinical neuropsychologist at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care and psychology professor at the University of Toronto.
The new findings are published in the journal Psychology and Aging.
The study involved a group of 57 participants, including both younger adults aged 17 to 23 and older adults aged 60 to 86. Participants were tested on their memory right after being shown the faces and names of 24 different people.
They were then shown another series of faces with text on their foreheads. However, they were told to ignore the written information and push a button when they saw the same face appear twice in a row. Some of the same faces and names from the first task were shown again. Upon completion, everyone was tested on their memory again.
The results reveal that older adults had better accuracy for the faces and names shown twice during both tasks, despite being told to ignore the text. When the name was shown as a distraction the second time, older adults used this to spontaneously rehearse the information learned previously. Younger adults did not see the same improvements, which is consistent with previous research.
“Our findings show that this method could be used as an effective memory strategy to help older adults remember the names of people they meet,” said Dr. Lynn Hasher, second senior investigator on the study, a senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and psychology professor at the University of Toronto.
“Through our work, we could develop more successful interventions for this population because it builds on their natural processing abilities rather than trying to use skills employed by younger adults.”
Over the years, Hasher’s lab has been involved in several discoveries showing that older adults can use distraction to help them learn. Next, they plan to create a training program that could help older adults learn the faces and names of people they meet and help them feel more comfortable with new social interactions.
This work is very important, because having trouble remembering people’s names can be quite upsetting and stressful in social situations, potentially causing an older adult to withdraw from socializing, said Dr. Renee Biss, who conducted the study.
In addition, the study could yield even greater results beyond boosting memory for faces and names. In light of the fact that older adults often have a difficult time remembering the associations between unrelated items, further testing with these tools could improve this type of memory as well, said Biss, a former postdoctoral fellow at Baycrest’s Neuropsychology and Cognitive Health program.
The team will also be exploring whether older adults who have mild cognitive impairment — a condition that can develop into Alzheimer’s — could also benefit from this strategy.
The results of this research could also be incorporated into a smartphone application as an accessible memory training tool.
Photo: This is Dr. Lynn Hasher, second senior investigator on the study, a senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute and a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. Credit: Baycrest Health Sciences.