Can Age-Related Forgetfulness be Overcome?

Most older adults accept forgetfulness as natural part of the aging process. However, a group of Canadian researchers from the University of Toronto and Baycrest Health Services have found that mature adults can boost their memory and even perform as well on memory tests as younger adults through distraction learning. This type of learning uses a senior adult’s ability to associate useless information that distracted them while they were learning something new in order to remember what they learned.

The researchers recruited two groups of participants: students from the University of Toronto who were between the ages of 17 and 27 and older adults who lived in the community who were between the ages of 60-78 years old. All the participants were asked to take three tests. The first was to memorize a list of words and recall those words after only a few minutes. After this first test, there was a fifteen minute period during which the participants worked on an attention task that involved looking at pictures. While they were working on this task, half of the list of words they studied appeared as distractors across the screen they were viewing. The effect was similar to watching television and then suddenly seeing weather information about an upcoming storm streamed across the bottom of the screen. In some instances the words were appeared during the 15 minutes assigned for the picture task and in other instances they appeared at the end of the 15 minute interval. After the picture task was complete, the researchers surprised the participants by asking them to recall the words on that original list.

What the researchers observed during that second recall test was quite amazing. Repeating the words as distractors did not affect how well the young people remembered the words on the list. However,  older adults rarely or never forgot the words that had appeared as distractors. These seniors were 30% more likely to remember the distractor words compared to the words that were not used as distractors. The seniors used hyperbinding, linking the words to the pictures, as a way to remember.

What do these findings mean in terms of improving the quality of life for senior citizens? These results can be used to develop learning techniques for older adults that can help them remember important information like when to take medication or if they are supposed to be somewhere. The most significant aspect to all of this is that the seniors do not even have to be consciously paying attention to the distractors that will act as cues to remembering.


Biss RK, Ngo KW, Hasher L, Campbell KL, & Rowe G (2013). Distraction Can Reduce Age-Related Forgetting. Psychological science PMID: 23426890

Image via d13 / Shutterstock.

Maria Esposito, MA

Maria Esposito, MA, holds a masters of arts in English from Fordhan University. She is now a medical writer who writes patient-oriented articles and blogs based on peer review medical research.
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