Home > Aging, Attention > Are the Stereotypes True: The Effects of Divided Attention Declines in Older Adults on Every Day Activities

Are the Stereotypes True: The Effects of Divided Attention Declines in Older Adults on Every Day Activities

Have you ever seen a meme or a video that depicts older adults not being able to drive, not being able to walk, not being able to remember things, or not being able to focus. These types of media are very present in our lives today, and are reflective of many of the stereotypes that surround older adults in our society today. But, have you ever taken a second to think about why these stereotypes exist, and why we are so quick to believe them? In other words, are there actually age-related changes or declines that older adults are experiencing that impact their ability to walk, drive, remember, or perform any other daily function, or is it just stereotyping of older adults that create these perceptions in our minds about how older adults perform on these tasks? Research about cognitive aging has provided us with insight into how our brain and cognitive functioning changes as a result of getting older, and how this in turn influences performance on a daily basis as we age. The field of cognitive aging is very wide, and research encompasses a wide variety of topics, including memory, perception, attention, language, prior knowledge, and much more. Additionally, a wide variety of theories have been carefully developed and researched to provide explanations for the declines that we see in older adults as they age. Although everyday functions for older adults such as driving, walking or memory could be influenced by declines in a wide variety of areas, present research about divided attention declines in older adults provide significant insight into how decline in divided attention impacts a variety of every day functions for older adults. 

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Divided attention is a field of study that is very large and comprehensive as a whole, but there has been recent research about how our divided attention skills are impacted as we age. In other words, there is a large amount of research which looks into the impacts of cognitive aging on our divided attention and attentional capacities, and how this impacts the everyday functioning of older adults. Dual-task situations, or situations where we must divide our attention between multiple tasks to complete the tasks at hand are very common in our everyday lives. These tasks can be as simple as listening to music while we walk, or they can be as complicated as trying to solve a math problem while trying to ride a bike. Regardless of what the tasks are or what the situation is, we are having to divide our attention between two tasks at a time. Again, this is very common in a world where multitasking has become a normal and daily function. Fraser and Bherer (2013) offer a comprehensive view of the research that has been conducted relating divided attention to cognitive declines in older adults through the presentation of a variety of theories and models. There was one common theme that was seen throughout all of the research presented in the paper, regardless of the type or complexity of the dual-task situation. This was the consequences of dual-task situations where we have to divide our attention. In other words, because we have to divide our attention between two tasks, we will see declines in our performance on one or both of the tasks. This is because we are having to strain our limited resources between two resources, and if we split them between both, we will see declines in both of the tasks and if we decide to put all of our resources into one task, the other one will suffer. In other words, there is no way that we can ensure our performance in a divided attention task will equal our performance on a task if our attention is not divided. This is true for both older and younger adults who are in dual-task situations, but, as we see the effects of cognitive aging in older adults on divided attention, we see more consequences in performance for this age group. 

One major emphasis of the paper was how the different theories about divided attention could actually be seen and applied to everyday actions, such as walking and talking. Walking and talking is a perfect example of a task that requires divided attention. It is something that I’m sure everyone practices once a day, probably many times a day. In other words, it is a common function in everyday human behavior, for both younger and older adults. For a younger person or adult, walking and talking might seem like an effortless task that someone does not have to think about in order to do. But, for older adults, we see more consequences in both of these tasks when they are done at the same time. By nature, walking and talking is a dual-task situation, meaning we will see declines in performance for all age groups by nature of our attentional capacities. In fact, both younger and older adults saw consequences in their walking in this divided attention scenario as both age groups experienced less muscle movements and walked at a slower pace as they were dividing their attention with talking. But, older adults also saw consequences in their talking as they formed less complex sentences and spoke at slower rates than younger adults, while the younger adults talking outcomes did not change as a result of the divided attention task. The main explanation for these results is that older adults suffer declines in divided attention which cause them to have decreased performance in both tasks opposed to one, and causes their overall performance on both tasks to be lower than the performance of younger adults. One contributing factor to these results is the need for older adults to use more attentional/cognitive resources on walking. Research shows that older adults need to use more resources on their balance and posture to make sure that they don’t fall, while for a younger adult, these things come automatically. In other words, for older adults, keeping good posture and balance is something that takes up additional attentional resources compared to younger adults. So, older adults not only need to divide their attention between two tasks, but they have to use more resources on the motor task of walking compared to younger adults. Because older adults are using more attentional resources as a result of the impacts of aging, we see more declines in their performance of both tasks. This additional attentional component can also help explain why we see declines in cognitive functions such as talking in older adults, but not in younger adults. This is also a major contributing factor in the high rate of falling in older adults, which have both physical and cognitive consequences (such as isolation, need for dependence…) that can be deadly. (Fraser & Bherer, 2013)

Another basic daily task where we can see the effects of declines in divided attention is driving. Driving by nature exposes us to a variety of dual-task situations where we must divide our attention. When we drive, we are exposed to many cues or stimuli that capture our attention and we must choose whether or not to allocate attentional resources to these things. We also must focus on the act of driving, while also having to attend to street signs, traffic lights, pedestrians, or anything else that could come into our driving path. We also might put ourselves in a divided attention situation when we are simply listening to music while driving. In other words, we will always be having to divide our attention when we are driving, which is why declines in divided attention in older adults can be so important to look at in the context of the effect on driving performance. There is tons of research that explores this very topic. One notable study by Ponds et. al (1988) compared the performance of younger, middle-aged and older adults in a simulated driving performance task, as well as a reaction time task during a dual-task situation. The main results of the study found that for older adults, the reaction times were greater and their performance on the simulated driving task was worse than the younger and middle-aged adults. In other words, in divided situation tasks, older adults showed declines in their performance compared to younger adults because of their age-related declines in their attentional skills. Additionally, the study saw no significant differences in performance between younger and middle aged adults, which emphasizes how the decline in divided attention does not impact our performance until about the age of 60 (Ponds et. al 1988). These findings are very significant given the nature of driving as an inherently divided attentional activity, or an attentionally demanding activity. We can use these results to protect the safety of older drivers, and use results on divided attention tasks to determine when it might not be safe for older adults to keep driving, and possibly work to improve divided attentional skills in older adults.

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Other research has been conducted to understand the impacts of declines in divided attention in older adults in other areas of everyday functioning. One research study by Getzmann et. al (2016) focused on the impact of performance on an attentional task that involved both a single task situation (one speaker), and a dual-task situation (listening to multiple speakers at once). In other words, this study looked at the differences between younger and older adults on listening tasks that both divided, or did not divide attention. The results of this study show that younger adults showed no difference in performance between the single task and dual task situations, but, older adults showed declines in performance on the dual-task situation compared to the single task situation. These results show an inherent decline in performance on a simple divided task situation for older adults that we do not see in younger adults, which emphasize the presence of cognitive decline in older adults. Additionally, brain scans of older vs younger adults reveal that changes in the prefrontal cortex can account for some of these performance based differences between younger and older adults on divided attention tasks (Getzmann et. al 2016).

Overall, research about divided attention in older adults shows that we have declines in our divided attentional skills and subsequent declines in performance on tasks that require us to divide our attention between multiple tasks. Whether this includes walking and talking, driving, or simply dividing attention between two voices or speakers, divided attention tasks are very relevant in our everyday life, regardless of age. Because these types of tasks are so common in everyday human life, studying declines in divided attention as we age is very important in understanding the outcomes for older adults as they age, and how we can work to find solutions to limit the declines in performance on divided attention tasks as we age. Additionally, although it is evident that older adults have declines in divided attention, stereotypes about older adult performance on a variety of tasks are often very inaccurate and can even be harmful for older adult motivation and confidence in performing everyday tasks, which can potentially push them to avoid these tasks all together, which only leads to more cognitive decline and negative outcomes. We can use this information to find ways to potentially limit cognitive declines in divided attention in older adults to increase their performance on every day functions opposed to perpetuating negative and inaccurate stereotypes about older adults.

References

Fraser, S., & Bherer, L. (2013). Age‐related decline in divided‐attention: From theoretical lab research to practical real‐life situations. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 4(6), 623-640.

Getzmann, S., Golob, E. J., & Wascher, E. (2016). Focused and divided attention in a simulated cocktail-party situation: ERP evidence from younger and older adults. Neurobiology of aging, 41, 138-149.
Ponds, R. W., Brouwer, W. H., & Van Wolffelaar, P. C. (1988). Age differences in divided attention in a simulated driving task. Journal of Gerontology, 43(6), P151-P156.

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