Memory load, distracter interference, and dynamic adjustments in cognitive control influence working memory performance across the lifespan

Anthony P. Zanesco, Joanna E. Witkin, Alexandra B. Morrison, Ekaterina Denkova, Amishi P. Jha

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Capacity-limited working memory (WM) systems have been known to degrade in older age. In line with inhibition-deficit theories of aging, WM deficits in older individuals have been attributed to failures in the ability to suppress the processing of task irrelevant, distracting information. Yet, other cognitive mechanisms underlying age-related WM deficits have been observed, including failures in WM with increasing memory load. Moreover, both distracting information and high memory load have been shown to trigger adjustments in cognitive control leading to subsequent performance benefits on later trials. However, no studies have characterized these dynamic adjustments across the life span or examined their contribution to WM deficits in older adults. We investigated the contribution of distracter interference, memory load, and dynamic adjustments in cognitive control on WM performance in 505 individuals with ages ranging from adolescence to older adulthood. Distracter interference and memory load were parametrically manipulated (high vs. low) in a delayed-recognition WM task, and accuracy was examined as a function of current (N) and previous (N-1) trial demands. Curvilinear models revealed that performance differs over the life span depending on specific WM task demands. Specifically, the ability to suppress task irrelevant distracters was greater in adulthood compared with adolescence, but worse in later life. In contrast, memory load resulted in performance deficits with increasing age, which were exacerbated when high load and interference demands combined. Dynamic adjustments in cognitive control was spared, in part, with memory-load triggered sequential trial effects maintained across the life span, but interference-triggered benefits observable up to middle age.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)614-626
Number of pages13
JournalPsychology and Aging
Issue number5
StatePublished - Aug 2020


  • Aging
  • Cognitive control
  • Interference
  • Working memory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Social Psychology
  • Aging
  • Geriatrics and Gerontology


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