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After people reach the age of 60 or so, they tend to have trouble multi-tasking, but a study published today in the journal Nature suggests, with practice, older brains can still do more than one thing at a time. NPR's Jon Hamilton explains.
JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, spent years doing experiments that showed how the ability to multitask declines with age. Adam Gozally (ph) says he found himself getting tired of delivering bad news about aging brains.
ADAM GOZALLY: And so I became inclined...
HAMILTON: Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco spent years doing experiments that showed how the ability to multitask declines with age.
Adam Gazzaley says he found himself getting tired of delivering bad news about aging brains.
ADAM GAZZALEY: And so, I became inclined to see if we could do something in the lab to actually help this.
HAMILTON: At first, Gazzaley considered having older people practice the multitasking experiments over and over might improve their performance.
GAZZALEY: But then I realized that no one would ever want to play our study experiments 'cause they're so completely boring. So I was like how about if we build it into a video game.
HAMILTON: Gazzaley's team came up with a driving game called NeuroRacer. He says it involves two tasks.
GAZZALEY: One is to navigate on this winding road that's going left and right and up and down, so you have to navigate in all of those dimensions and the road never stops moving.
HAMILTON: The second task is to hit a button whenever you see a road sign in the form of a green circle.
The researchers recruited several dozen healthy people - from 60 to 85 years old - to see whether playing the game could improve mental function. One of the participants was Ann Linsley, who is 65. She says she volunteered in part because she was having mental lapses.
ANN LINSLEY: Getting up and going to the refrigerator and forgetting what I was getting. Being distracted and not accomplish what I was trying to do. So when I saw this study I thought oh, cool...
LINSLEY: ...because maybe I'll learn something. If not, maybe I can help them learn something.
HAMILTON: Linsley and other participants initially played the driving game in Gazzaley's lab, while researchers studied their brain activity so they could look for changes after the training was over. Then, some were sent home with a laptop version of the game. Over the next month, these participants played three times a week for an hour. As they got better, the game got harder.
Linsley says she got to like it and she was sad when she had to give back the laptop.
LINSLEY: 'Cause I was, every day, getting a little better at it so it was a game that I could actually do. I think I went up 22 levels on that game.
HAMILTON: Gazzaley says people like Linsley not only got better at the game, they were able to multitask much the way much younger people do.
GAZZALEY: After training, they improved their multitasking beyond the level of the 20 year olds who played it on a single visit.
HAMILTON: Gazzaley says the improvement extended beyond multitasking. Participants also got better at remembering information and paying attention. And he says the training actually changed participants' brains. Brain wave patterns associated with focus got stronger. So did connections between visual areas of the brain and areas involved in making decisions. And tests showed that six months after training, the improvements were still there.
Gazzaley says the results suggest that this sort of mental exercise could actually make a difference in people's lives.
GAZZALEY: We know that these cognitive abilities that improve, like working memory and sustained attention, really underlie a lot of our performance on how we interact in the real world.
HAMILTON: Like whether we remember why we opened the refrigerator door.
David Meyer, of the University of Michigan, says the results confirm his own research suggesting that aging brains are still highly capable. But he says video games are not the only way to keep your brain sharp after 60.
DAVID MEYER: I would suggest before spending time training your brain with video games, you'd be much better off to go jog for half an hour each day.
HAMILTON: Meyer, who is 70, says he runs several times a week. In part because physical exercise is a proven way to preserve mental function. He says he also engages in strenuous mental exercise though it doesn't involve games.
MEYER: I read very difficult books in the morning. I think about topics like Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. So I'm trying to do a combination of both physical and mental exercise, in order to maintain my capacities at the highest possible level for my age.
HAMILTON: And Gazzaley work suggests that's not so different than someone decades younger.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News.