Eye of the Beholder: Memory Tests Elevate Subjective Age

When my grandpa was around 85 years old, his doctor wanted him to take a stress test to see how his heart would respond to certain stressors. He refused, insisting that his heart felt just fine and there was no point in taking a test that would make his relaxed heart feel stress it otherwise wouldn’t. “I know I’m old,” he said. “I don’t need a test to tell me that.”

At the time, my grandpa was very comfortable with the idea of aging; he understood it as a natural process and did not feel any undue stress over it. He understood that his heart was probably not as strong as it was when he was say, 25, and he was at peace with that fact because, overall, he believed himself to be in good health. Plus, he didn’t feel 85; his subjective age was still somewhere in the 50s or 60s.

A recent research report published in Psychological Science, which supports the notion that how one feels about his or her age actually has the potential to predict certain psychological and health outcomes, brings into question how other aging individuals feel about their health, and whether the age they are is the age they feel.

The Studies: Aging Five Years in Five Minutes

In this particular set of four studies, led by senior author Lisa Geraci, the researchers examined how a person’s subjective age was affected by taking or even knowing that they were about to take a standard memory test. The studies evaluated primarily older adults, with the first experiment being conducted in person at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. The initial study involved 22 men and women whose average age was around 75 years. After taking a five-minute memory test, their average subjective ages went from about 59 years to 63 years.

The outcome inspired the remaining three studies, which were carried out online. One of these compared the subjective age effects of the memory test on young adults in their 20s with older adults in their 60s; another divided a group of 57 adults with an average age of 60 into two groups and examined one group’s subjective age reaction to taking a vocabulary test and the other’s reaction to taking the memory test; and the fourth and final study evaluated the impact of simply asking 30 adults in their 50s and 60s to read the memory test instructions.

Across the board, the younger adults’ sense of age was not affected by taking the tests, while the older adults felt four to five years older after taking every test except the vocabulary one; being tested on vocabulary apparently does nothing to impact a person’s subjective age. In the fourth study, even the mere thought or expectation of taking the memory test proved to make the participants feel five years older.

Feeling Old? Mind over Matter.

Feeling older might not be such a big deal if there wasn’t so much stigma attached to aging in our society. Lillian Rozin, LCSW and GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert on aging and geriatric issues, says, “Many, if not most, people struggle with aging, as we don’t ascribe anything good to old age in our culture,” she says.

And while you don’t want to live in denial of the fact that your body and mind are changing with time, it doesn’t hurt to focus on the enjoyable aspects of the aging process. As Rozin adds, “If you are positive, grateful, and engaging in life, your experience of aging will likely be much deeper and [more] rewarding.”

With regard to the effects of the memory test, in particular, she says, “Memory [loss] is one of the major symptoms of aging and [memory] is very challenging to lose. . . . It also symbolizes the onset of older age and many people’s deep-seated fears of Alzheimer’s, loss of control, fear of death, etc. Reminding us of our loss tends to reinforce it. If you don’t focus on it, you are less inclined to be bothered.”

As a final note, Rozin reminds us of a quote by Mark Twain, which she also shares in one of her articles: “Age is an issue of mind over matter: If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

References:

  1. Geraci, L., Hughes, M., and De Forrest, R. L. (2013, October 17). Aging 5 years in 5 minutes: The effect of taking a memory test on older adults’ subjective age. Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/0956797613494853. Abstract retrieved from http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/10/07/0956797613494853.abstract
  2. Raven, K. (2013, October 25). Memory testing can age older adults in minutes. Reuters Health. Retrieved from http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/25/us-memory-testing-idUSBRE99O0OS20131025

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  • Bree

    Bree

    November 1st, 2013 at 11:45 AM

    So maybe just the games to keep the mind strong are the way to go over testing.

  • Deb s

    Deb s

    November 3rd, 2013 at 4:32 AM

    People already know they are getting older and maybe aren’t as sharp as they used to be so we want to do something that will highlight this even more? Or at least that’s the thought anyway.

    Whatever the intent if the testing isn’t truly meant to make them feel better about their abilities and will only serve to make them feel worse, then unless it is done to truly set some kind of benchmark for where they are, I think that there are plenty of other ways that this could be done without making people feel even more inadequate.

  • dorothy

    dorothy

    November 4th, 2013 at 4:50 AM

    I don’t need some test to tell me that I am not as sharp and mentally focused as I used to be. I know that all too well! So I am kind of like the patient who didn’t wnat to do the stress test. I know that the results won’t be good and maybe seeingt hem in black and white will make me feel even worse, so why do I want to do that to myself?

  • Greg

    Greg

    November 5th, 2013 at 4:55 AM

    Oh good grief!

    We need tests that make this age group feel good about what they can still do instead of making them feel bad about what they probably already recognize that they have lost!

    Wouldn’t there be some way to do this without pointing out to them that this shows a deficit so that they wouldn’t raise that age that they are feeling? Because you know that if you get so down on yourself this is only going to accelerate the aging and decline.

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