ATTENTION & MEMORY IN HEALTHY AGING
We are interested in how different aspects of attention and memory change as people get older. A lot of research in cognitive aging tends to paints a negative picture, but our research shows that some of these cognitive changes with age are adaptive. Dr. Biss' previous research has looked at the costs and benefits of the increased distractibility that is associated with healthy aging. For example, distraction from the past can interfere with older adults' learning of new associations (Biss, Campbell, & Hasher, 2013). In other cases, though, distraction can be helpful: We have run several studies showing that healthy older adults’ susceptibility to distraction can be co-opted to help them remember when it can function as an unexpected reminder. Along with collaborators, we have shown that distraction can function as incidental reminders of words (Biss, Ngo, Hasher, Campbell, & Rowe, 2013) and face-name associations (Biss, Rowe, Weeks, Hasher, & Murphy, 2018). In other words, we found that age-related decreases in attentional control counterintuitively benefitted older adults’ memory, by helping them to rehearse important information even without their explicit awareness of the rehearsal opportunity.
ATTENTION & MEMORY IN MEMORY DISORDERS
Given that this effect appears to rely upon implicit memory, such a mechanism may be a promising means to improve memory in clinical populations with explicit memory impairments. For example, implicit memory processes may be enhanced as explicit memory declines among patients with mild memory difficulties (Rowe, Troyer, Murphy, Biss, & Hasher, 2021). Dr. Biss' postdoctoral research, funded by the Alzheimer's Society of Canada showed that distracting reminders can also serve as a source of rehearsals in older adults with amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), a likely precursor to Alzheimer Disease that is characterized by memory impairments greater than expected from one’s age. We showed that this method can improve memory for face-name associations for individuals with aMCI, given that forgetting people’s names is a primary memory concern for these patients (Biss, Rowe, Hasher, & Murphy, 2020). Older adults with aMCI benefited a similar amount from this method as older people with normal memory abilities for their age.
INTERVENTIONS TO IMPROVE COGNITION FOR OLDER ADULTS
Our lab is collaborating with researchers at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto to implement and evaluate an online version of the Memory and Aging Program in Windsor-Essex. This program was developed as an in-person, group psychoeducation program for older adults to learn about their brain health and memory strategies.
We are also interested in interventions for people with serious cognitive concerns, including people with dementia living in an institutional environment (i.e., nursing and long-term care homes). One intervention of interest is exergaming, or technology-based exercise gaming, which we have shown in a systematic review can improve some physical health outcomes for older adults in long-term care, although evidence for improvements in cognitive and quality of life outcomes is currently more ambiguous (Chu, Quan, Souter, Krisnagopal, & Biss, 2022). Along with Dr. Charlene Chu and Henrique Matulis at the University of Toronto, Dr. Biss has helped develop a new exergame specifically designed with and for older adults living in long-term care. This exergame was developed using a user-centred design process, in which we used input from long-term care residents, family, and staff to iteratively design successive prototypes of the device and games (Chu, Biss, Cooper, Quan, & Matulis, 2021). We are currently in the process of conducting a feasibility trial to test its efficacy at improving physical, cognitive, and psychosocial outcomes.
Another line of research with the broad goal of informing new models of dementia care using technology is a comprehensive survey and in-depth interviews of care partners and health care providers of people with dementia. With researchers at Baycrest and health care and technology organizations (Ontario Telemedicine Network, Centre for Aging + Brain Health Innovation, and AGE-WELL Network of Centres of Excellence), we examined a broad set of research questions assessing the needs of people with dementia and their care partners, gaps in the provision of care, and how care partners adopt assistive and other technologies (Mo, Biss, Poole, Stern, Waite, Murphy, 2021).
EFFECTS OF EMOTION ON ATTENTION & MEMORY
Ongoing research by M.A. student Davin Iverson is examining how distinct emotions (e.g., disgust, sadness, fear, happiness) influence item and associative memory.
Past work by Dr. Biss has looked at how positive emotional states influence what we attend to in the environment and how we remember information. In two studies (Biss, Hasher, & Thomas, 2010; Biss & Hasher, 2011), we found that younger adults in a positive mood pick up more distracting information from the environment and are able to use this information on future tasks. Since older adults generally report being much happier than their younger counterparts, we have also explored how older adults’ more positive affective states may contribute to their increased distractibility (Biss, Weeks, & Hasher, 2012). That is, effects normally attributed to cognitive aging may also be tied to emotional differences between younger and older adults.
EMOTION & CHRONOTYPE (TIME OF DAY PREFERENCE)
It is well-known that most younger adults like to sleep in late, while older adults prefer to wake up early. Some past research has demonstrated that the few morning-type younger adults report feeling happier than their night owl peers. In one study, we explored whether the association between morningness and mood is also true for older adults (Biss & Hasher, 2012). We found that this is indeed the case: Morning-type individuals reported higher positive affect and better subjective health compared to evening-type individuals, and this was true for both young and older adults. We also found that the shift towards earlier time preferences with age partially contributed to older adults' improved moods relative to younger adults. Thus, becoming an early bird as you age may have positive emotional consequences.