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Are Older People Better Problem Solvers?

Are Older People Better Problem Solvers?

Researchers have discovered that older adults tend to be better at creative problem solving compared to younger adults.  Scientists researched over 100 studies of people involving problem solving and aging from 1960 to 2016.  This reviewed data on people’s behaviour and evidence from their brain scans.  The researchers found that older people’s concentration and their capacity to avoid distraction was weaker than younger adult’s, but this may have helped the older people to achieve better results on some creativity and problem solving tasks. The scientists were amazed at the strength of the findings.  They discovered that people who had poorer concentration and who were easily distracted were better at tasks that required creativity.  Lynn Hasher, a co-author of the paper and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto said “This is especially surprising because the ability to focus has previously been seen as a basic requirement for learning”.

The researchers said that the ability to focus does help with certain tasks such as reading.  One study in relation to reading showed that older people were slower at comprehending certain words that had been included in the passage in order to distract the reader.  Also, older people found it more difficult to remember significant information that they had read when the distractors were present.  Whereas younger people didn’t have this problem.

However, the ability to focus may actually decrease people’s performance on tasks that require overall attention, Hasher, and her colleagues said.  This was evident in a 2016 study which was published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. The researchers gave the participants a test where they were shown pictures of faces with names superimposed over them.  Even though the participants were told to ignore the names, the researchers were still testing them on the names they remembered.  Amazingly, older people found this task easier than the younger participants in relation to matching the faces to the names, and remembering faces and names usually declines with age.

A similar study which was published in 2006 in the Journal of Psychology and Aging found that adults aged 60 to 75 years old had a better memory for “distractors” than younger adults who were aged 18 to 30. These combined studies suggest that while younger adults are better at discounting distracting information, they find it more difficult to recall the information later on.  The scientists concluded that older people had a “broader scope of attention” when it came to tasks that involve incorporating larger amounts of information, e.g. problem solving in creative ways or pattern recognition over a period of time, as opposed to tasks that entail a narrower focus.  The researchers said that this could be because the frontoparietal region of the brain which is associated with focus, processing important information, and discounting distracting information is reduced as people age.  Although their ability to concentrate and avoid distractions in general are lower than younger adults, they could be better at creative problem solving.

A 2005 study discovered that people with a single brain lesion in the front of the brain (shown by a CT or MRI scan) were able to solve creative maths problems, whereas participants who had no brain lesions had difficulty solving these problems. The results showed that 82 percent of the adults with the brain lesions could solve the problem, compared to only 43 percent of participants who had no lesion.

The researchers added that people’s ability to focus isn’t only because of their age.  It also depends on their mood, whether they have had enough sleep, are feeling well physically and mentally, or have consumed drugs or alcohol.

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