Reducing Clutter May Have Benefits for Alzheimer’s

February 4, 2013

Making life easier for someone with Alzheimer’s disease may mean making such simple changes as limiting household clutter, according to new research from Georgia Tech and the University of Toronto.

The researchers were studying people with mild cognitive impairment, a form of memory loss or loss of other mental faculties that can progress to full-blown Alzheimer’s disease. They found that many of their memory problems related to their inability to distinguish between objects that looked the same. The findings confirm earlier research that parts of the brain critical for memory also play a role in perceiving objects.

For the study, published in the journal Hippocampus, the researchers tested subjects by having them guess whether two images that were displayed side by side were the same or different. A picture of a butterfly, for example, might be juxtaposed next to an image of a microwave oven, and participants would be asked whether the two objects were identical or not. Or the image of a shiny red apple might be placed next to another image in which the fruit was tilted on an axis.

But some of the tests were not so simple. For example, images of similarly shaped blobs with geometric designs that varied only slightly in terms of shape, color or fill pattern might be rotated and juxtaposed. Not surprisingly in such cases, the study participants often had great difficulty determining whether the two images were the same or different. The more visually complex the image, the harder time they had.

The findings suggest that, under certain circumstances, reducing visual clutter could help people with memory problems better perform everyday tasks. For example, the researchers note, buttons on a telephone tend to be the same size and color; only the numbers are different. These slight visual differences may make dialing a phone number especially difficult for someone with memory problems. One solution, they say, could be to design a phone with varying sized buttons and different colors.

“People often associate mild cognitive impairment and dementia solely with memory impairment,” said Georgia Tech Psychology Assistant Professor Audrey Duarte, one of the study’s authors. “Memory and perception appear to be intertwined in the same area of the human brain.”

“Not only does memory seem to be very closely linked to perception, but it’s also likely that one affects the other,” said Morgan Barense of the University of Toronto, another study author. “Alzheimer’s patients may have trouble recognizing a loved one’s face, not only because they can’t remember it, but also because they aren’t able to correctly perceive its distinct combination of features to begin with.”

Other research has shown that eliminating visual clutter may make life easier for someone with Alzheimer’s. Furniture and carpets that have a busy pattern or that are a similar color, for example, may be difficult to distinguish for someone with dementia, making it more likely that someone would suffer from falls and broken bones, a common problem for those with Alzheimer’s disease. [See the ALZinfo.org story, “People with Alzheimer’s at High Risk of Falls”] Similarly, plates, serving dishes, utensils and tablecloths that are a similar color or that have busy patterns may make it harder for someone with Alzheimer’s to eat a meal. Instead, choose a bold simple color that’s different for each.

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

Source: Rachel N. Newsome, Audrey Duarte, Morgan D. Barense: “Reducing Perceptual Interference Improves Visual Discrimination in Mild Cognitive Impairment: Implications for a Model of Perirhinal Cortex Function.” Hippocampus, Volume 22, Issue 10, pages 1900-1999. October 2012.


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