Attention to Working Memory Contents in Aging

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Description: Deficits in the use of attention to refresh representations are argued to underlie age-related decline in working memory (WM). Retro-cues guide attention to WM contents, enabling the direct assessment of refreshing in WM. This preregistered study investigated aging deficits in refreshing via retro-cues and the preservation of refreshing boosts after distraction incurred by a secondary task. The distractor task is assumed to impede refreshing by engaging attention away from the memoranda. Any free time available before or after distractor processing, however, can be used to resume refreshing thereby ameliorating distractor-related interference. Accordingly, by varying the time available to complete the distractor task, one can vary refreshing opportunities, an effect known as cognitive load. Using an individually calibrated task that controlled for WM capacity and speed of processing, we demonstrate that focusing attention on WM representations is similarly efficient in younger and older adults. However, younger adults were able to retain this retro-cue benefit despite increasing cognitive load, whereas increasing cognitive load reduced the retro-cue benefit in older adults, suggesting that they are less able to protect focused representations from distractor-interference. This shows that aging impacts specific subcomponents of refreshing, such that the benefit of focusing attention is relatively intact in older age, but older adults struggle to preserve the refreshing benefit against distraction.

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