Mind-Wandering in Healthy Aging and Early Stage Alzheimer’s Disease

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Objective: The frequency of mind-wandering (MW) decreases as a function of age in healthy individuals. One possible explanation is that MW is a resource-dependent process, and cognitive resources decline with age. The present study provides the first investigation of MW in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) to further examine the resource model and discontinuities between healthy aging and AD. Method: Three large cohorts completed the Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART): a healthy middle-aged group (mean age = 61.79 ± 5.84 years; N = 270), a healthy older adult group (mean age = 76.58 ± 5.27 years; N = 282), and a group with early stage AD (mean age = 76.08 ± 7.17; N = 77), comparable in age to the second group. Results: Self-reports of MW during the SART decreased as a function of age, and there was a further decrease in the AD group. All 3 groups produced faster responses on trials before No-Go errors, suggesting MW occurred in all cohorts. After No-Go errors, healthy older adults slowed disproportionately compared with middle-aged adults. This was not evident in AD individuals who showed posterror slowing comparable with that in the middle-aged group. Conclusions: The decreased self-reported MW in older adults and the further decline in AD are consistent with the cognitive resource account of MW. Behavioral indices suggest that AD is on a continuum with healthy aging, with the exception of posterror slowing that may suggest performance monitoring deficits in early AD individuals (e.g., lack of error awareness).

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