Researchers at the IUGM Institut universitaire de geriatrie de Montreal and the University of Montreal have identified the area of the brain involved in multitasking and ways to train it.
Multitasking skills decrease with age, which makes it harder for seniors to keep up, causes them stress, and decreases their confidence, researchers said.
The findings are important because they may help scientists develop better targeted cognitive stimulation programmes or improve existing training programmes.
"Our work shows that there is also an association between the type of cognitive training performed and the resulting effect," said Sylvie Belleville, who led the research.
"This is true for healthy seniors who want to improve their attention or memory and is particularly important for patients who suffer from damage in specific areas of the brain.
"We therefore need to better understand the ways to activate certain areas of the brain and target this action to get specific results," Belleville said.
In one of the studies, 48 seniors were randomly allocated to training that either worked on plasticity and attentional control or only involved simple practice.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate the impact of this training on various types of attentional tasks and on brain function.
The team showed that training on plasticity and attentional control helped the participants develop their ability to multitask.
However, performing two tasks simultaneously was not what improved this skill. For the exercises, the research participants instead had to modulate the amount of attention given to each task.
They were first asked to devote 80 per cent of their attention to task A and 20 per cent to task B and then change the ratio to 50:50 or 20:80.
This training was the only type that increased functioning in the middle prefrontal region, or the area known to be responsible for multitasking abilities and whose activation decreases with age.
The research was published in journals AGE and PLOS ONE.