Cognitive load reduction a risk

Aging can be fun if you lay back and enjoy it. – Clint Eastwood In cognitive psychology, "cognitive load" is the load related to the control of our working memory. Theories say that during complex learning activities the amount of information that must be processed simultaneously can overload the overall limit of working memory one possesses.

Working memory also includes visual representation of pending body movements.

The more a person attempts to learn/process in a shorter amount of time, the more difficult it is to process that information in working memory.

For example, consider trying to read this article and toss/catch a ball repetitively, while adding 1+2+3+4+5+ etc. The cognitive load is much higher because the brain’s working memory must work harder to process language while simultaneously trying to integrate new information.

And these processes are sensitive to age. Working memory is associated with cognitive development, and research shows that its capacity tends to decline as we age.

Much research has demonstrated that cognitive aging is accompanied by a reduction of working memory, a general slowing of mental processes, and a decline of the ability to repress irrelevant information.

We’ve all seen our aging loved ones struggle with multitasking. And even more concerning, it’s likely that the reduction in cognitive load ability as we age contributes to fall risk in our elderly loved ones.

One particular study stated that increased cognitive load leads to impaired mobility decisions in seniors at risk for falls. It further mentioned that seniors with reduced executive functioning – such as seniors with a history of falls – may be prone to poor mobility decisions/results, especially under dual-task conditions.

The study classified participants as "at-risk" and "not-atrisk" for falls using a validated

fall risk assessment.

Dual-task performance was assessed in a virtual reality environment where participants crossed a simulated street by walking on a manual treadmill while listening to music or conversing on a phone.

Those "at-risk" experienced more collisions with oncoming cars and had longer crossing times in the music/phone condition compared to controls.

So basically, elderly individuals trying to concentrate on a certain task and who were mobile were at higher risk for a fall, which can be a life threatening injury.

So, what do we do with this info? Let’s encourage our elderly loved ones who have suffered a fall to focus on the quality of their mobility.

To avoid multitasking when being mobile.

Let’s all be patient with our elderly loved ones in conversation when it is apparent that the information we are providing is coming at them too fast and is overwhelming.

Let’s slow it down a touch. Let’s understand.

Chris Wilkinson is the owner/GM for Nurse Next Door Home Care Services for Cowichan and central Vancouver Island. For questions or a free inhome caring consult call 250-748-4357, or email

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