Older adults who feel younger than they really are might
want to steer clear of memory tests, or risk feeling older, a new study
It's been known that doing poorly on memory tests influences
what age an older adult may "feel", an effect called subjective
ageing. But a team of researchers have shown through a series of four
experiments that the mere thought of a memory test can make men and women age
60 and older feel, well, older. "Past research has referred to subjective
age as a fixed number and we have shown that subjective age can change in five
minutes," Lisa Geraci, associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M
University in College Station, said.
Geraci is senior author of the study, which appeared in
Psychological Science, and developed its concept. The first experiment involved
22 men and women with an average biological age of 75 years recruited from the
area around the university's campus. Before the test, the participants were
shown a piece of paper with an unmarked line and told one millimetre equalled
one year, then asked to tick off the age they felt along the line.
Immediately after that, they were given a list of 30 words
to remember and took a five-minute memory test. Before the test, the average
subjective age hovered at 59 years old. Afterwards, participants reported
feeling about 63.
The researchers then wondered: Do young people experience
the same "ageing" process? Do ageing adults feel older after other
types of tests, like vocabulary skills? And, what if a memory test is merely
mentioned, but not actually administered? Geraci and her team also wanted to
eliminate any influence that being in a college campus environment – filled
with young people – might have.
So the next three experiments were done online. The researchers
recruited 50 participants in the US, half were young adults in their 20s and
half older adults in their 60s. The memory test experiment was repeated in the
online format. Again, older adults felt about four years older after the test.
The young people didn't feel any different about their age.
Fifty seven older adults average age of 60 took part in a
separate experiment done online. About half were assigned to take a memory
test, and the rest could show off their vocabulary skills. Those who took the
vocabulary test didn't feel aged at all. Their counterparts doing the memory
recall felt about five years older.
These results, the researchers write, fit with a general
negative stereotype in society that associates ageing with memory
loss. "People don't think 'Oh gosh, I'm losing my vocabulary,'" Geraci
told Reuters Health.
In the final experiment of the series, 30 adults in their
late 50s and 60s were asked to give the age they felt at the start, and again
after simply reading instructions for a memory test. Again, all participants
reported feeling older.
The experiments support previous research showing that
context can have powerful effects on how old a person feels. For example, a
trip to the local gym can be an "ageing experience" for older adults,
said Henry Roediger of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Geraci
studied ageing concepts in Roediger's lab in the early 2000s, but he was not
involved in the current research. "The self-image is changeable and
malleable," Roediger, who offered his age of 66, said.
He pointed out that in all four studies older adults always
reported a younger subjective age than their numerical one even after the
memory tests. "It's an interesting study," said Igor Grossmann,
assistant professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada.
Grossmann regularly studies aging-related subjects, but has
no connection with the current research. He noted that the number of
participants in the experiments was small, but seeing that different versions
of the experiments produced the same subjective ageing effect "is
powerful". "We are all living in a society in which we often put older
adults in a perspective that they are not doing well," he said.
"In terms of care, it would depend on the goal of a
doctor's office visit," Grossmann said, but "it would probably be
good to ask first about general well-being, then maybe what they ate for
breakfast, before finally asking about memory. "Using these techniques
means the older person does not have to be reminded of his or her age right
away. "The bottom-line message would be to try and be cautious and mindful
of stereotypes and how we talk about the performance of older adults,"