Teaching Those with Alzheimer’s to Separate the Forest from the Trees

July 7, 2009

July 7, 2009

People in the early stages of Alzheimer’s have a hard time separating what is important from what’s not, according to new research. The findings suggest that there it may be possible to train those with Alzheimer’s more effective strategies for recalling vital information.

Remembering what’s most important is central to daily life. For example, if you go to the grocery store but leave your shopping list at home, you’d at least want to remember the milk and bread, if not the jam. Or when packing for a trip, you’d want to remember your wallet and tickets more than your slippers or belt.

The study involved 109 healthy seniors, average age 75, from the Washington University in St. Louis Alzheimer’s Research Center. Some had very mild Alzheimer’s disease, while others had intact thinking and memory skills.

The researchers asked participants to study and learn a series of words that were randomly assigned different point values. Those words with high point values, they were told, were the most important to remember.

The study volunteers were later given 30 seconds to recall as many words as possible from the list they had memorized. All participants, including those with Alzheimer’s, recalled more high-value than low-value items. However, those with Alzheimer’s were, as a group, significantly less efficient than their healthy age peers at remembering items according to their value.

The authors speculated that Alzheimer’s disease makes it harder for people to remember what they learn in a strategic way. Unlike in healthy people, where sifting important information is an efficient process, those with Alzheimer’s lost the ability to maximize learning and memory.

The findings, which appeared in Neuropscyhology, a medical journal from the American Psychological Association, also demonstrate that value-directed learning stays intact in healthy aging. Older adults might not remember as much as younger adults, but when healthy, they remain able to distinguish what’s important.

The researchers note that their results suggest the potential for improved memory training. People with early-stage Alzheimer’s might remember important information better by learning to be more strategic and selective when encoding high-value information, even though it comes at the expense of neglecting less-important information, the authors said.

By www.ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.


David A. Balota, Ph.D., Washington University in St. Louis; and David P. McCabe, Ph.D., Colorado State University: “Memory Efficiency and the Strategic Control of Attention at Encoding: Impairments of Value-Directed Remembering in Alzheimer’s Disease,” Alan D. Castel, PhD, University of California, Los Angeles; Neuropsychology, Vol. 23, No. 3., May 2009


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