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Scientists devise strategy to prevent age-related forgetfulness

February 25, 2013

For years, forgetfulness has seemed like an assumed part of senior living, but a team of researchers from the University of Toronto believe that lapses in memory are not necessarily inevitable. Their study, which was recently published in the journal Psychological Science, found that a strategy known as distraction learning could help seniors improve their performance on memory tests.

To test their hypothesis, scientists recruited a group of younger participants between 17 and 27 as well as older subjects who ranged in age from 60 to 78. The participants were asked to memorize a list of words and then recall them after a 15-minute delay. However, during the delay they were also asked to perform a simple picture-based exercise while the words flashed in the background. Interestingly, this technique, known as distraction learning, improved memory in the older participants but not the younger subjects. In fact, those in the senior group boosted their memory by as much as 30 percent.

"Our findings point to exciting possibilities for using strategically-placed relevant distraction as memory aids for older adults – whether it's in classroom, at home or in a long term care environment," said lead investigator Renée Biss. 

The results are particularly interesting as they relate to continuing education. Experts suggest that the new technique could improve how seniors who have returned to the classroom retain information. 

Deciding to return to school has become a popular part of a healthy lifestyle for seniors, and for good reason. Lifelong learning offers a number of benefits, according to U.S. News and World Report. Aside from offering mentally stimulating activity, continuing education also helps keep seniors socially engaged, which is recognized as a cornerstone of healthy aging