Home > Aging, Attention, Memory > Pay Attention, Grandma!

Pay Attention, Grandma!

Have you ever had a moment in which your mother forgot where she had put her phone, which she says she was just using it a minute ago? Or have you ever walked out of a store empty handed because you couldn’t remember precisely what it was that you were going to buy? I have.

Such forgetting occurs more frequently among older adults (60 -78yrs old) than among younger adults (17 – 27yrs old). In other words, older adults forget more often than younger adults. In addition, older adults are also more easily distracted. For example, when my dad once turned on a television while my grandma and I had a conversation, grandma got distracted by the show on television. She then forgot that she was in a conversation just a moment ago and started watching the show with my dad.  At moments like this, I could not stop wondering why can’t my grandmother just ignore the television like I do.

Well, ignoring distraction is not as easy as it sounds for older adults. Like this small anecdote I just provided, older adults cannot help but get easily distracted even by a small, irrelevant stimulus. This is because as humans age, we gradually lose the ability to control attention thus become more vulnerable to distraction, which shifts our attention from one task to the other, than we were at younger age. Unable to ignore distraction by choice can sometimes be quite frustrating. But recent research conducted by Renee K. Bliss et al. (2013) on effects of distraction in forgetting suggests that distraction can benefit older adults.

In this study, a group of older adults and a group of younger adults studied a list of words and were given a memory test after 15 minutes interval in which all participants performed a picture identification task. In the identification task, series of pictures was presented and the participants had to indicate if consecutive pictures were identical. All pictures contained distractors that included words from the studied list, words not from the studied list, and non-word syllables.

Results of this study found that older adults performed worse than younger adults in the memory test. However, when tested on the words that appeared as distractors in picture identification task, older adults’ performance was significantly better than their performance on memory test that tested the words that did not appear as distractors. In the test where they were tested on words that appeared as distractors, older adults’ performance was almost equally to younger adults’. Such memory improvement when studied words appeared as distractor did not occur to younger adults. So, how did this happen?

The secret lies in older adults’ inability to easily ignore distraction. Unable to ignore distraction easily, during the picture identification task, older adults got distracted by the words from studied list. This distraction then served as an opportunity to re-study the words. On the other hand, because younger adults could easily ignore distraction, they lost the opportunity to re-study the words, thus not benefiting from the distraction. It can then be thought that distractions can reduce forgetting in older adults because they can improve memory.

Now you know that distraction can reduce forgetting in older adults, you can apply this new knowledge in real life. As a simple technique to reduce forgetting in an elder family member, I suggest that you write down important events, such as doctor’s appointment, on a note. You can then stick the note on places like a refrigerator where your grandmother or grandfather can see while walking into the kitchen. Because it is not easy for them to ignore distractions like the note on the refrigerator, your grandparent will notice the note and be reminded of the important event on the note. Such application of the study will reduce frustrations caused by forgetting.


Bliss, R. K., Ngo, K. W. J., Hasher, L., Campbell, K. L., & Rowe, G. (2013). Distraction Can Reduce Age-Related Forgetting. Psychological Science, 24(4), 448-455.

Doi: 10.1177/0956797612457386


Categories: Aging, Attention, Memory Tags:
  1. December 1st, 2013 at 04:15 | #1

    While the authors of this article do attempt to explain their findings by pointing towards the fact that older adults have a greater inability to ignore distraction, I found myself wondering if they also could have extended this explanation to include some neurological reasons as to why this might occur. For example, are there any specific brain structures or pathways involved with ability to ignore distraction that change as a function of age? I think this would be an important next step for the current research because, as you pointed out, this phenomena of older adults easily forgetting things is very common and something that many people have experienced. If there was a way to identity or pinpoint specific biological reasons behind it, it could lead to a greater understanding for how to possibly fix (or at least reduce) it.

  2. December 1st, 2013 at 15:33 | #2

    While reading this blog post, the Stroop task that we learned in class came to mind. The Stroop task is designed to explore our ability to selectively direct attention when faced with interference. In the Stroop Task, people are asked to name the color of the ink instead of reading the printed word. For example, if “blue” were written in the color pink, the task is to say “pink.” However, since the automatic process of reading interferes (or acts as a distracter), a person must use attentional control in order to suppress the automatic process of reading in order to produce the correct response. Since attentional control breaks down in older patients and patients with DAT, they consequently make more mistakes. In this study, older adults are prone to paying attention to the distracters instead of the target word. Could this phenomenon be a result of the breakdown in attentional control, which inhibits them from focusing on the task on hand?

    Another phenomenon that can explain why older people are more prone to forgetting and being distracted could be related to working memory. In class, we learned that there are individual differences in working memory and working memory cannot increase over time. However, people with better working memory are less susceptible to the Cocktail Party Effect because they are better able to pay attention and focus on their immediate task. They are less prone to distracters. Since older adults are more easily distracted, does this indicate impairment in their working memory as a function of age? I agree with Jacqueline’s question: Are there specific brain structures or pathways involved with ability to ignore distractions that change as a function of age? I proposed two possible breakdowns in cognitive functions, however I would like to read about the specific neurological pathways and processes that may breakdown as a function of age.

  3. December 2nd, 2013 at 23:48 | #3

    I loved the title of this article! I can definitely relate to all the questions asked in the first paragraph. As one might predict, the results of the experiment showed that older adults had a harder time ignoring distraction than younger adults. It made me wonder how people of all ages would test- in particular, I would be interested to know how children and middle-aged adults might fair in the tests. I actually had the same thought as Jacqueline did in her comment. Why would this be the case? What part of the brain might be responsible for this, and at what point should we expect our memory to start to decrease? My parents forget things all the time, but so do I! They always seem to attribute it to their age, but they are only in their mid 50s! I wonder if my memory will be better or worse in 10, 20, and then 30 years!

  4. March 19th, 2014 at 15:47 | #4

    I found this article very interesting, because although I have a pretty good memory, I often find myself experiencing trouble with entering a room and forgetting what I came in to get. My mother experiences this problem even more than I do all while claiming that she used to have such good memory “when she was my age.” This article gives an explanation for this phenomenon and also brings up many questions. In a study using the STROOP task, it was discovered that individuals predisposed to Alzheimer’s were more likely to perform worse than their average peers on the task even before they had developed any signs of dementia. These early non-visible breakdowns in attention and memory signal later life breakdowns. I wonder, then, if people who are predisposed to dementia would perform similarly to the adults on the present study, or maybe even better because their breakdowns in attention would provide for their susceptibility to distraction.
    It would also be interesting to compare young adults and adults’ performances on this task with children (who would be under the age of 8) who display some form of eidetic memory. Would these children because of their ability to remember everything perform even worse on the present experiment than the young adults or would they perform the best because of their ability to retain any and all information presented to them?

  5. March 20th, 2014 at 21:50 | #5

    This was a nicely written blog post on an interesting article! I agree with Jackie that some neurological changes could influence the attention of older adults. I would also like to know how health problems, especially those that come with age, could impact these findings. For example, my mother has started to attribute her forgetfulness to fibromyalgia since it is one of the many symptoms. In fact, “fibro fog” refers to the attention and concentration problems that patients sometimes report. Would a disorder, such as fibromyalgia, impact the performance of older adults on the picture identification task? I predict that they would have trouble ignoring distractions and would therefore re-study the words. This study should be replicated with samples of older adults who have specific health disorders or problems.

  6. March 20th, 2014 at 22:55 | #6

    I liked the positive spin of the end of this post, and it made me reevaluate my own biases regarding attentional capacities and forgetting. This is a very interesting article because it not only explains that older people forget more frequently, but explores what cognitive qualities make this so, using a study by Renee K. Bliss et al. One question that occurred to me while reading the article was whether or not a note would be particularly attended to by an older person as opposed to a younger one. If you wanted to remind a loved one about something, I feel as if younger people would be just as capable of attending to an unusual, salient stimulus such as a note. Perhaps a better example of the older population’s inability to ignore distraction would be to try to distract them visually in a friendly game of Checkers, or Monopoly. I know, from anecdotal experience, that as my father gets older he has a much harder time ignoring the television when it is on, even when the rest of the family is trying to get his attention by yelling and flailing our arms. Overall, this is a very well written article and made me rethink my own predispositions and attitudes towards aging and attention.

  7. April 29th, 2014 at 11:48 | #7

    I found this blog to be very well written and interesting. The uplifting spin you put on it made me want to keep reading. It is definitely evident in my life that my parents are starting to forget more and my grandparents are very forgetful. We learned about inhibition and facilitation when learning about attention. How one gets older, the ability to inhibit pathways declines and declines faster for individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. This correlates with what is going on in this blog. Both showing that older people have less of an ability to control their attention and to inhibit distractions. Another topic that we learned about in class that is related to this blog is studying techniques. Individuals who space their target words more, do better on the tests. This is due to the increase in encoding variability and makes you less dependent on encoding specificity. The elder participants who got to restudy their target words did better on the memory recall because they were able to make more memory traces.

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