The contribution of visual attention and declining verbal memory abilities to age-related route learning deficits
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Our ability to learn unfamiliar routes declines in typical and atypical ageing. The reasons for this decline, however, are not well understood. Here we used eye-tracking to investigate how ageing affects people's ability to attend to navigationally relevant information and to select unique objects as landmarks. We created short routes through a virtual environment, each comprised of four intersections with two objects each, and we systematically manipulated the saliency and uniqueness of these objects. While salient objects might be easier to memorise than non-salient objects, they cannot be used as reliable landmarks if they appear more than once along the route. As cognitive ageing affects executive functions and control of attention, we hypothesised that the process of selecting navigationally relevant objects as landmarks might be affected as well. The behavioural data showed that younger participants outperformed the older participants and the eye-movement data revealed some systematic differences between age groups. Specifically, older adults spent less time looking at the unique, and therefore navigationally relevant, landmark objects. Both young and older participants, however, effectively directed gaze towards the unique and away from the non-unique objects, even if these were more salient. These findings highlight specific age-related differences in the control of attention that could contribute to declining route learning abilities in older age. Interestingly, route-learning performance in the older age group was more variable than in the young age group with some older adults showing performance similar to the young group. These individual differences in route learning performance were strongly associated with verbal and episodic memory abilities.
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