Route Repetition and Route Reversal: Effects of Age and Encoding Method

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Previous research indicates age-related impairments in learning routes from a start location to a target destination. There is less research on age effects on the ability to reverse a learned path. The method used to learn routes may also influence performance. This study examined how encoding methods influence the ability of younger and older adults to recreate a route in a virtual reality environment in forward and reverse directions. Younger (n = 50) and older (n = 50) adults learned a route either by self-navigation through the virtual environment or through studying a map. At test, participants recreated the route in the forward and reverse directions. Older adults in the map study condition had greater difficulty learning the route in the forward direction compared to younger adults. Older adults who learned the route by self-navigation were less accurate in traversing the route in the reverse compared to forward direction after a delay. In contrast, for older adults who learned via map study there were no significant differences between forward and reverse directions. Results suggest that older adults may not as readily develop and retain a sufficiently flexible representation of the environment during self-navigation to support accurate route reversal. Thus, initially learning a route from a map may be more difficult for older adults, but may ultimately be beneficial in terms of better supporting the ability to return to a start location.

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