Multitasking in aging: ERP correlates of dual-task costs in young versus low, intermediate, and high performing older adults

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With large inter-individual variability, older adults show a decline in cognitive performance in dual-task situations. Differences in attentional processes, working memory, response selection, and general speed of information processing have been discussed as potential sources of this decline and its between-subject variability. In comparison to young subjects (n = 36, mean age: 25 years), we analyzed the performance of a large group of healthy elderly subjects (n = 138, mean age: 70 years) in a conflicting dual-task situation (PRP paradigm). Based on their dual-task costs (DTCs), the older participants were clustered in three groups of high, medium, and low performing elderly. DTCs differed between groups and increased linearly from young subjects to low performing elderly. The groups did not differ with respect to ERP-components related to task preparation (CNV) and recall of stimulus-response mappings (P2). Peak latencies of the frontocentral P2 and N2 were shorter in young as compared to older adults but did not differ between elderly performance groups. However, differences in N2 amplitude between short and long SOA were correlated with the corresponding DTCs, suggesting more efficient S-R implementation in subjects with lower DTCs. Based on our results, between-subject differences in dual-task interference can be explained in terms of individual differences in selection of an appropriate response in dual-task situations.

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