Can I have your attention, please?
Since we started helping our senior fitness program clients with brain training, we’ve seen an interesting trend develop. Most clients mention that they are concerned about their memory and feel like they are experiencing memory loss. However, as we work with them, we find that most of the time our older adults don’t struggle with memory-related dual tasking as much as they do have problems with their ability to focus and handle attention training tasks.
A critical aspect of split-attention needs in the real world is going out to eat. Many clients have hearing aids. While the technology is amazing, a common complaint among the less expensive brands are that the hearing aids amplies ALL the noise around them, and it’s hard to pick out who is saying what. This to me, is a classic example of brain domain of attention. It’s not so much about the hearing, as it is the processing of ignoring certain sounds while zeroing in on others.
Is it memory loss or an attentional deficit?
These two cognitive domains are often confused. For example, you needed to write something down. You are thinking about what you need to write down while you search for the paper and pen. While hunting around you see your glasses that you will need when you read the paper. You pick them up, finally find the pen and paper and now you can’t remember what you needed to write down. Sound familiar?
While this could be indicative of some mild cognitive impairment and possible memory loss related issues, it could also be your ability to focus and pay attention, especially in the midst of distracting information. When you have to focus on something and another stimulus (be it verbal, or visual, or something else) is introduced, this is a called a distractor. This challenges your “split attention” because now you have to focus on two things simultaneously.
The best way to tell if it’s a memory or attention issue is to test and train both and see which ones you have the greater struggle with.
How to you flex your attention muscles
Since the ability to focus and pay attention is a cognitive domain, it is something that can be worked and challenged and improved (to a point). Remember, the older we get, the harder and more intense the stimulus needs to be to effect a change (read more about that here).
One method we use with our clientele (be it masters athletes to older adults) is dual-tasking. This is where we give them a physical exercise they can do almost as it were on auto-pilot, ie marching in place. While the client is marching in place we toss a ball to them to catch. The size of the ball can change, as can how fast the ball is tossed as well as the location/placement the ball is tossed to.
The key is to not deviate from the tempo of the marching in place, while at the same time having to split your attention to an incoming ball. To ensure you have the right dosage of intensity the physical challenge should be between a 4-6 on a scale of 1-10 (1 being SUPER easy, and 10 being virtually impossible). The same 4-6 level should also be on the ability to focus and catch the ball. Frustration should remain low, and focus/attention on the task should be high.