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Multi-Tasking and Your Aging Brain: June 23, 2011

For Shirley Jimmerson, it’s hard to distinguish whether she forgot something or never really absorbed it in the first place.

“And then I found out that all these things that I was having with multitasking and so forth, that I wasn’t, wasn’t paying attention.”

Juggling multiple tasks may be more frustrating for older Americans already worrying about a failing memory.

We all multitask, but research shows it drains the brain. Several studies looked at MRIs of the brain in action and found there was finite space for tasks that require attention.

“It turns out when they look at functional MRI evaluations of multitasking, the overall brain activity decreases when you multitask, so you’re not storing anything and you’re doing neither item well,” says Dr. Michael Raab with Lee Memorial Health System.

Everything seems to go okay when you add a second task to what you’re doing. The brain can divide and conquer. But research suggests once you add a third, things start to go downhill and more mistakes are made.

“My theory would be that some of the info as you’re shifting from one idea or area to another, then because of that shift you’re wasting energy,” says Dr. Raab.

A geriatrician who specializes in memory problems, Dr. Raab finds that older people are extremely concerned with maintaining their memory.

They could take a cue from Shirley who brushed up on her skills.

“The most important thing to me was it told me to pay attention, that’s what. We tend to get lazy memory habits and say ‘oh well, that’s part of getting old’.”

Turns out, age may not be the biggest culprit and perhaps seniors are taking on too many things at once. Dr. Raab says that the overall measurement of brain activity goes down when you start to multitask.