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Psychol Aging. 2011 Sep;26(3):678-88. doi: 10.1037/a0022326.

The effects of attention on age-related relational memory deficits: evidence from a novel attentional manipulation.

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Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, USA.


Healthy aging is often accompanied by episodic memory decline. Prior studies have consistently demonstrated that older adults show disproportionate deficits in relational memory (RM) relative to item memory (IM). Despite rich evidence of an age-related RM deficit, the source of this deficit remains unspecified. One of the most widely investigated factors of age-related RM impairment is a reduction in attentional resources. However, no prior studies have demonstrated that reduced attentional resources are the critical source of age-related RM deficits. Here, we used qualitatively different attention tasks and tested whether reduced attention for relational processing underlies the RM deficit observed in aging. In Experiment 1, we imposed either item-detection or relation-detection attention tasks on young adults during episodic memory encoding and found that only the concurrent attention task that involves relational processing disproportionately impaired RM performance in young adults. Moreover, by ruling out the possible confound of task difficulty on the disproportionate RM impairment, we further demonstrated that reduced relational attention is a key factor for the age-related RM deficit. In Experiment 2, we replicated the results from Experiment 1 by using different materials of stimuli and found that the effect of relational attention on RM is material general. The results of Experiment 2 also showed that reducing attentional resources for relational processing in young adults strikingly equated their RM performance to that of older adults. Thus, this study documents the first evidence that reduced attentional resources for relational processing are a critical factor for the relational memory impairment observed in aging.

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