Multi-tasking: why does it get harder with age?

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Are we Digital Dummies?, an eye-opening documentary, points out the very real dangers of multi-tasking.  In October, 2009, on a flight from San Diego, two Northwest airline pilots overshot the Minneapolis airport by 240 kilometres.  They were on their laptops scheduling their hours as the plane flew past its destination!  Passengers and the airline were not impressed.  The pilots were suspended.

Most multi-tasking scenarios aren’t as dangerous as this one.

But according to the documentary, research is showing that people who multi-task a lot are more easily distracted and have more problems remembering and juggling tasks than those who don’t.

Hearing loss is an exercise in multi-tasking, 24/7.

At a noisy restaurant with family members, we’re doing the following: 

ü  filling in the gaps created by hearing loss 

ü  holding parts of the conversation in working memory while we search our internal dictionaries for a matching word or phrase 

ü  lip-reading 

ü  shifting attention from one person to another in conversation 

ü  localizing people in space in order to use visual cues 

ü  adjusting hearing aid programs 

ü  thinking:  “I’m not getting this!  I can’t hear well when I am tired.  What is he saying?  Should I ask him to repeat again, or pretend I’ve heard?”

Out of all of the above, the last one can lead to system overload, in my opinion. We start to shut down.

To make matters worse, aging affects our ability to multi-task.

Research at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) has identified the reason that older adults have more difficulty switching between tasks.  Study participants watched a scene and were asked to keep it in mind for 14 seconds. Then, in the middle of the maintenance period, an interruption occurred.  An image of a face popped up, and they were asked to determine its sex and age. They were then asked to recall the original scene.

They found that when people are interrupted, the brain disengages from the memory network to attend to the interruption.

Afterwards, younger adults successfully disengaged from the interruption and re-established connection with the memory network. 

Older adults had more difficulty recalling the original image.  They didn’t disengage from the interruption and re-establish the connection with the memory network.

“The impact of interruptions and distractions reveals the fragility of working memory,” said, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, the senior author of the study.

I’m not a neuroscientist.  But I think there are implications for hearing loss.  

There’s lots of interruptions and distractions in the form of gaps created by hearing loss. I think that we can mitigate some of the effects of the aging process if we fill in the gaps (with hearing aids and LACE training), and if we strengthen working memory and the ability to shift attention between competing speakers (again with LACE training).

And that last item on the list—thinking—the one that leads to overload—can be improved with LACE training too.  With LACE training, we learn that we don’t have to hear every word to understand the message.  We learn to keep trying.  We learn to keep paying attention, because even though we missed the first part, we may catch the rest later.  As they say on the MasterCard commercials, “Priceless.”

 

Related post:  Musicians offset the effects of aging

 

Photo credit:  © Ximagination | Dreamstime.com

 

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