Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Sustained Attention, Attentional Selectivity, and Attentional Capacity across the Lifespan

Academic journal article Attention, Perception and Psychophysics

Sustained Attention, Attentional Selectivity, and Attentional Capacity across the Lifespan

Article excerpt

Published online: 24 July 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract Changes in sustained attention, attentional selectivity, and attentional capacity were examined in a sample of 113 participants between the ages of 12 and 75. To measure sustained attention, we employed the sustained-attention-to-response task (Robertson, Manly, Andrade, Baddeley, & Yiend, Neuropsychologia 35:747-58, 1997), a short continuous-performance test designed to capture fluctuations in sustained attention. To measure attentional selectivity and capacity, we employed a paradigm based on the theory of visual attention (Bundesen, Psychological Review 97:523-547, 1990), which enabled the estimation of parameters related to attentional selection, perceptual threshold, visual short-term memory capacity, and processing capacity. We found evidence of agerelated decline in each of the measured variables, but the declines varied markedly in terms of magnitude and lifespan trajectory. Variables relating to attentional capacity showed declines of very large effect sizes, while variables relating to attentional selectivity and sustained attention showed declines of medium to large effect sizes, suggesting that attentional control is relatively preserved in older adults. The variables relating to sustained attention followed a U-shaped, curvilinear trend, and the variables relating to attentional selectivity and capacity showed linear decline from early adulthood, providing further support for the differentiation of attentional functions.

Keywords Attention . Aging . Sustained attention . Cognitive control . Theory of visual attention (TVA)

The study of cognitive aging has revealed that cognitive functions follow different trajectories across the lifespan. For example, crystallized intelligence or knowledge representations remain largely stable across the lifespan, while fluid intelligence or cognitive processes such as processing speed, working memory, and long-term memory show a substantial decline across the lifespan, beginning in early adulthood and following a systematic, linear decline over the decades (Park, 2000). Atrophy of the brain (Raz, 2004; Raz & Rodrigue, 2006) is one factor that may underpin decline in cognitive processing with age, but the relationship between brain atrophy and cognitive decline is still not well understood (Cabeza, Nyberg & Park, 2005). One exception is the clear concordance between frontal-lobe atrophy and the marked decline of executive functioning displayed by older adults (Park, 2000; Park, Polk, Mikels, Taylor & Marshuetz, 2001; West, 1996). The frontal-lobe hypothesis (West, 1996) proposed that cognitive processes supported by the prefrontal cortex would manifest decline at an earlier age and in greater magnitude than would cognitive processes supported by nonfrontal regions. This hypothesis subsumed earlier explanations of cognitive aging, which drew upon specific executive functions, such as attentional capacity (Craik & Byrd, 1982) or inhibition (Dempster, 1992; Zacks & Hasher, 1997), in order to account for the decline in cognitive function due to age. Alternative accounts of cognitive aging have suggested that more general or global mechanisms, such as slowed processing speed (Salthouse, 1996) or a general deterioration of neuronal integrity (Baltes & Lindenberger, 1997), mediate cognitive decline.

Attention is at the heart of this discussion of cognitive aging. As an executive-control process that is supported in large part by the frontal lobes, it is a potential casualty of the aging process. As a fundamental cognitive process that influences other aspects of cognition, it may also act as a mediator of decline in other cognitive abilities, such as memory and reasoning (Craik, 2006). However, attention is a complex cognitive process, and studies examining the effect of aging on various aspects of attention have yielded different conclusions.

Attention has been defined as a set of processes that enable "the maintenance of goal-directed behaviour in the face of multiple, competing distractions" (Parasuraman, 1998). …

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