Attention and Aging: A Review of
Sensory Gating in Normal Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease
Author Not Identified
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs
Many studies suggest that the role of attention changes with increasing age. These changes have to do with the ability to focus on relevant information and disregard irrelevant information. This phenomenon is known as sensory gating of information. Although normal cognitive aging reflects some decline in attentive ability, there appears to be a unique, and more universal, component to this decline in Alzheimer’s patients. Normal cognitive aging appears to be restricted to certain domains, whereas Alzheimer’s disease patients have a more universal impairment in their ability to control attention. This review informs the reader of previous theories and research on attention and aging, and discusses findings of the constituents of normal and abnormal cognitive aging with relation to attention. Attention and Aging: A Review of
Sensory Gating in Normal Aging and Alzheimer’s disease
As research in aging progresses, we are increasingly aware of certain diminished capacities in the elderly. Specifically, it has come to attention that older individuals have a reduced capacity to focus on relevant information while disregarding irrelevant information. This phenomenon is known as “gating” sensory information. There are many hypotheses regarding this phenomenon. Some of the more specific hypotheses include reduced attention capacity, reduced working memory capacity, and inhibition deficit. Some theories also postulate that the attentional deficit seen in older adults is due to decreased executive function capacity to control attention. Interestingly, there appears to be a unique component to attentional deficit in normal aging versus aging of the Alzheimer’s type. However, in order to gain an informed understanding of this phenomenon in any aging scenario, it is necessary to consider prior research and theories in this regard.
Attention is important to understand because it bears on other dimensions of cognitive functioning, such as age-related behavior differences, relationships with others, and emotional reactions. Experimental psychologists often use attention as a manipulated variable in order to test such things as memory and other cognitive performance skills (Rogers & Fisk, 2001). Management of attention and executive control of attention are the skills necessary to perform well on these types of tasks, but aging seems to bring with it a deficit in these types of attention control. These failings can occur in the domains of selective attention, divided attention, and in the presence of distractors, among others. The ability to concentrate on a target stimulus and disregard irrelevant stimuli are what makes attention a fascinating subject to study. But how does attention function in normal cognitive aging?
In her work on general processing deficit hypotheses, Light (2000) addresses three potential causes for selective attention impairment in the elderly: reduced attention capacity; reduced working memory capacity; and inhibition deficit. These hypotheses share a set of assumptions about attention and working memory. They assume that different types of tasks will have different attentional or memory requirements, that people have stable attention and working memory capacity, and that older individuals have less available capacity (Light, 2000). Evidence from research on dividing attention suggests that the encumbrance of dividing attention may be greater for older adults, specifically when the assessment of memory is recall rather than recognition (Anderson et al., 1998). Deficits in attempting to pay attention to and remember (encode) two stimuli at once would be known as a deficit in divided attention. One approach to perception of age differences in divided-attention performance is the Divided Attention...