Oops, Did I Say That? Ability To Filter Speech Worsens As We Get Older, Study Finds

EDINBURGH, Scotland — Can’t figure out why your folks seem to constantly overshare when in the presence of others? You may simply be witnessing a telltale symptom of getting older, a new study finds.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh conducted an experiment with 100 adult individuals of all ages, who were asked to take a variety of computer-based listening and visual tests.

Through the trials, two types of attention-based skills were examined: inhibition and switching.

Elderly couple talking
Why do older people tend to overshare? A new study finds that our ability to watch what we say really does worsen as we age.

These assessments were meant to help gauge how a participant’s attention skills  or their ability to focus on one thing and ignore another  affected their capacity to consider other people’s perspectives in conversation.

Inhibition was defined as the ability to focus on a specific set of information, ignoring any irrelevant info; switching, for the purposes of the research, was measured by one’s ability to shift focus between two different sounds, filtering relevant information.

One experiment in which these skills were tested had participants describe one of four visible objects to a partner, the latter of whom could only see three of the items.

The researchers found that the study’s more elderly participants were more likely to disclose details about the hidden item, which they considered a form of revealing impertinent information.

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Overall, there was ample evidence for the conclusion that attention-switching skills decline as an individual ages, which manifested in how older individuals tended to ignore their assigned partner’s perspective.

“The study identified two attentional functions that influence whether we consider another’s point of view and how that changes as we age,” explains researcher Madeleine Long in a university news release. “This is particularly important for older adults who are more susceptible to revealing private information. We hope these findings can be used to design targeted training that helps older adults improve these skills and avoid embarrassing and potentially risky communicative errors.”

For younger participants, the ability to filter distracting information allowed them to consider others’ perspectives with more ease, the researchers noted.

The full study is published in the January 2018 edition of the journal Cognition.

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