‘Brain clutter’ can impact cognitive health in older adults, study shows

To-do lists. Phone numbers. Grocery items. Doctors appointments. Birthdays. Work meetings. Day-to-day worries.

The brains of older adults ― ages 60 to 85 — are full of so many facts, dates and so much other data. All of this knowledge translates into a lifetime’s worth of wisdom, but according to researchers, it may also be impacting memory.

A study published in the March issue of Trends in Cognitive Science found that older adults are storing too much information in their brain, leading their memory to become “cluttered,” making certain types of information harder to retrieve.

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According to the study, older adults experience more difficulty recalling detailed information compared to younger adults. Important new information becomes knotted up with facts that are no longer relevant, leading to a jumbled storehouse of memories.

When processing and sorting through information in the mind, it’s important that the brain is able to supplant older information with more relevant data. This study, which looked at 20 years of lab research, including behavioral and neuroimaging studies, concluded that a cluttered mind makes it more difficult to do this.

“When older adults try to remember one particular detail, they experience more difficulty because that one detail has become connected to all sorts of other details in their mind, and they need to filter through them all,” said lead study author Lynn Hasher in a press release.

“For example, imagine you know five people named John, and you’re trying to remember one specific John’s last name,” said Harsher, a senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Center. “You will find this more difficult than if you only know one person named John. That is similar to what happens when older adults try to recall specific details.”

“If you sometimes over-rely on this accumulated knowledge when you need to encode or remember new information, then that can provide a disadvantage,” lead study author Tarek Amer, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychology at Columbia University told Today,

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There are some benefits for older adults to having such a storehouse of information and memories available, which is something study authors refer to as “enriched memory.” Enriched memory means a wealth of accumulated knowledge, which can be beneficial in decision-making and performing more creative tasks.

“In research labs, we tend to focus on precision of memory, but in real life, precision hardly matters,” Hasher said. “As researchers, we may be overestimating the disadvantage that older adults have with their memory and underestimating the advantages.”

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