You may be only as old as you feel

By Sheryl Smolkin

An interesting new study* by a University of Toronto team led by psychology professor Alison Chasteen reveals that how you feel about getting old can affect your sensory and cognitive functions.

The study published in the December issue of the American Psychological Association Journal was based on testing of 301 participants between ages 56 and 96. Researchers considered the interview subjects’ views on aging, how much they believe they can hear and remember plus their actual performance in both areas.

Standard hearing and recall tests were administered. For example, study participants saw a list of 15 words on a computer screen and heard a series of different words through headphones. Subsequently they were asked to write down as many words as they could remember. In addition, they completed a third test by listening to five words they were asked to recall after a five minute delay.

They were also asked to answer questions and react to phrases describing how they viewed their own ability to hear and remember. For example, participants were asked to agree or disagree with sentences like, “I am good at remembering names” or “I can easily have a conversation on the telephone.”

In addition they were asked to envisage 15 situations and rank how worried they are about each based on age. One example was to imagine they were involved in a car accident where it was unclear who was at fault and specify how concerned they were that they would be held responsible because they were elderly.

“Those who held negative views about getting older and believed they had challenges with their abilities to hear and remember things, also did poorly on the hearing and memory tests,” Chasteen said.

“That’s not to say all older adults who demonstrate poor capacities for hearing and memory have negative views of aging,” she continued. “It’s not that negative views on aging cause poor performance in some functions, but there is simply a strong correlation between the two when a negative view impacts an individual’s confidence in the ability to function.”

She noted that the perceptions older people have about their abilities to function and how they feel about aging must be considered when determining their cognitive and sensory health. She recommends educating older people about ways in which they can influence their aging experience, including providing them with training exercises to enhance their cognitive and physical performance, and dispelling stereotypes about aging.

“Knowing that changing how older adults feel about themselves could improve their abilities to hear and remember will enable the development of interventions to improve their quality of life,” she concludes.

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*This blog is based on materials provided by the University of Toronto.

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