When an unexpected event interrupts a routine task, a recent study at Concordia University shows that younger adults are faster at responding to the change than seniors.
"When we frequently perform a task, our reactions become automatic," said Kevin Trewartha, first author.
"For example, experienced drivers are often 'on autopilot' when they're behind the wheel, but they do just fine, unless something unexpected happens. We're interested in reaction speeds in different age groups when something unexpected does occur while someone is performing a routine task."
The study involved 40 participants of whom half were 19 to 36 years old, while the other half were 60 to 75 years old.
Each participant was asked to follow visual cues on a computer screen and press corresponding keys on a piano keyboard. Some sequences were repeated frequently so that participants learned to expect them, while other sequences were randomly added at intervals to create unexpected sequences.
"Older adults were less able to overcome their habitual responses when unexpected sequences arose," said Trewartha.
"They were also slower in learning to adapt. They didn't improve as much as younger adults when they were asked to vary their learned routine on multiple occasions," the author said.
The research team found older adults tended to take less time to plan movements but more time to execute them - perhaps because they felt uncertain about their reactions.
These results suggest that focus is even more important for older adults than for younger individuals.
The study was published in the Journal of Gerontology.