On the time course of attentional focusing in older adults
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Many sensory and cognitive changes accompany normal ageing, including changes to visual attention. Several studies have investigated age-related changes in the control of attention to specific locations (spatial orienting), but it is unknown whether control over the distribution or breadth of attention (spatial focus) also changes with age. In the present study, we employed a dual-stream attentional blink task and assessed changes to the spatial distribution of attention through the joint consequences of temporal lag and spatial separation on second-target accuracy. Experiment 1 compared the rate at which attention narrows in younger (mean age 22.6, SD 4.25) and older (mean age 66.8, SD 4.36) adults. The results showed that whereas young adults can narrow attention to one stream within 133 ms, older adults were unable to do the same within this time period. Experiment 2 showed that older adults can narrow their attention to one stream when given more time (266 ms). Experiment 3 confirmed that age-related changes in retinal illuminance did not account for delayed attentional narrowing in older adults. Considered together, these experiments demonstrate that older adults can narrow their attentional focus, but that they are delayed in initiating this process compared to younger adults. This finding adds to previously reported reductions in attentional dynamics, deficits in inhibitory processes, and reductions in posterior parietal cortex function that accompany normal ageing.
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