Older people absorb information more easily in small, uncomplicated batches rather than being swamped with a vast amount of detail, according to a University of Queensland study.
For the three-year, $96,000 Australian Research Council-funded study, Psychology Department Associate Professor Glen Smith and research assistant Lurline Hollyman examined the cognitive (intellectual ability including reasoning and memory) skills of 300 Brisbane residents aged between 60 and 85.
Results were compared with previous studies on the cognitive skills of young people in the 18-24 age group.
The study is believed to be the first to examine the problems of dealing with current and potential cognitive changes in older people.
Group members were examined for their accuracy and speed in tackling a range of tests including simple memory tests, verbal and spatial tasks.
Dr Smith said preliminary results showed that, while older people generally can perform tasks as accurately as younger people, they took more time.
Further, the study showed that, when older people performed tasks, their main difficulty lay in keeping all aspects of the task in the mind at once.
'For example, in one test in which the study group had to choose the right option from a list of eight, the older group took longer than young people weighing up the viability of each. Once a decision was made, however, their reaction time following through on the selected option was no different from young people's,' Dr Smith said.
He said the result suggested that to make tasks easier for older people, information should be presented in a series of core pieces, gradually built up as each piece was understood.
The study's result had ramifications for training older people to do specific tasks such as operating computers and motor vehicles, Dr Smith said.
'The study found older people became more easily baffled when presented with many choices all at once and this interfered with their retention rates,' Dr Smith said.
A further finding concerned a memory test in which study group members were asked to read an article several times before answering questions about it.
'While the older people read the article in the same amount of time as younger people, they were less efficient at recalling particular aspects. We found that, even if they took extra time, their recall was still comparatively limited. We attributed this finding to basic physiological changes in the brain as people age,' he said.
For more information, contact Dr Smith (telephone 3365 6409).