Do a Better Job by Spring Cleaning Your Mind

Cleaning Your Mind Your mind is more like a computer than you ever knew -- fill it up with too much useless, distracting data and it works slower, according to new research that set out to explain why memory lapses occur more frequently in older people.

This is invaluable information for those older workers who are competing with younger colleagues and are worried about keeping up mentally. According to this new research from Concordia University in Montreal, older individuals have reduced learning and memory because their minds tend to be cluttered with irrelevant information when performing tasks. The findings offer new insights into why aging is associated with a decline in memory and may lead to practical solutions.

"The first step of our study was to test the working memory of a younger and older population and compare the results," says Mervin Blair, first author and a doctoral student in Concordia's Department of Psychology and a member at the Centre for Research in Human Development.

Half of the study's participants averaged 23 years of age, while the other half averaged about 67 years old. Each participant was asked to perform a working memory task, which included recalling and processing different pieces of information. "Younger adults were better than the older adults at recalling and processing information," Blair said.

The next step of the study showed that older people don't purge irrelevant information as well as younger people do. Researchers measured this by having the subjects again respond to images, but in a different way, showing whether or not they were hanging onto the information they'd been given previously. Once again, the youngsters outperformed their older counterparts.

"The older adults had poor inhibition, repeatedly responding to previously relevant images," Blair said. "Basically, older adults are less able to keep irrelevant information out of their consciousness, which then impacts on other mental abilities."

But all is not lost for older workers, according to Blair. Just like you can clean out your computer or clean off your desk, you can clean out, or "de-clutter" your mind. Focusing and reducing mental clutter may help. "Reduce clutter; if you don't, you may not get anything done," Blair advised. Here are some ways to reduce the clutter in your mind.

  • Reduce stress: Stress obsesses us, and tends to dominate our focus. Reduce it, and it's one less major distraction.
  • Stay mentally active: Do workouts for your mind -- things like learning a new language, playing a new instrument and completing crossword puzzles, Sudoku or KenKen.
  • Keep an active social life: Responding to others keeps the mental process fit and helps the brain sort out and discard irrelevant information.
  • Exercise: Blood flow to the body and brain helps with mental fitness, and keeps one from having to focus on sickness, pain or other maladies.

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