The Glass is Half Full for Older People with Diminished Cognitive Capacity

Dementia and other illnesses that impair cognitive functioning can drastically change the quality of one’s life. Having limited ability to think, rationalize, reason, and recall can make even daily activities challenging for someone with a cognitive deficiency and for those with whom they interact. Family members, friends, and caregivers know all too well the hurdles that must be overcome in order to maintain an adaptive level of functioning and to ensure well-being. One of the biggest risks that threaten older individuals is a change in mood. Dependence, loss of mobility, and a shrinking social circle can put older people at risk for feelings of isolation, frustration, and depression. But when cognitive decline is added to those risk factors, do older people become more susceptible to negative moods and negative stimuli, or less susceptible to these vulnerabilities?

According to a recent study led by Shannon M. Foster of the Department of Psychology at the University of Colorado, older people with weakened cognitive capacity are more likely to focus their attention on positive events than negative ones. Although this has been supported in other research, it is unclear whether this occurs voluntarily as an effort to improve well-being, or involuntarily as a consequence of cognitive impairment. To find out, Foster used brain imaging technology to test older adults for cognitive processing, time perspective, and bias toward positive or negative stimuli. The results revealed that the participants with low cognitive functioning focused more on positive stimuli than negative stimuli. They also believed the time to complete their task was more limited than those with stronger cognitive abilities. Those high in cognitive functioning not only had a more accurate assessment of the time for their tasks, they also were drawn more toward negative stimuli than positive stimuli.

When Foster examined the brain imaging data, it was discovered that these attention biases were involuntary. In other words, they were a direct neural response to the stimuli based on the level of cognitive ability as opposed to being conscious in nature. This suggests that although cognitive impairment may cast a dark cloud over a person’s life, that cloud may come with a silver lining. On the one hand, weakened cognitive abilities may help people maintain positivity. On the other hand, it may also put them at risk for poor decision making based on a distorted perspective. “But either way,” Foster said, “aging adults may be able to look forward to a future that is relatively more positive.”

Foster, S. M., Davis, H. P., and Kisley, M. A. (2012). Brain responses to emotional images related to cognitive ability in older adults. Psychology and Aging. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030928

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    January 24th, 2013 at 12:25 AM

    This is great news! You know, I’ve always felt bad for the older folk with dementia. They have their innate abilities restricted due to the condition. but it certainly does seem like there is a silver lining. If all of us do learn a little from them, to focus on the positives rather than negatives, then maybe we can enrich our lives too.

  • sam


    January 24th, 2013 at 3:59 AM

    Well this is at least one bright spot for them to look forward ro

  • enrica


    January 24th, 2013 at 9:50 AM

    seems like a good thing. but what are the effects of actually not taking in any of the negatives on these people? life, as usual, is a combination of ups and downs. when you stop feeling the negatives does it have any negative effects?I’d love to read something that follows up with this aspect.

  • kasey


    January 24th, 2013 at 11:33 AM

    maybe this is some sort of natural defense system in our brain. surprising to see that when things go bad there is an auto-fix in our brain to help us along. we are complex beings, most of our body can repair itself and now this. something to ponder over.

    also, what I would like to see is for them to research to see if this ability to focus only on positive things can be replicated in other healthy individuals somehow. now that would be one gift most of us would be willing to give to ourselves, wouldn’t it?!

  • bess


    January 24th, 2013 at 1:43 PM

    Please, I will continue to see the glass as half empty
    I just don’t want to have to get dementia to see it as half full
    would much rather just keep my rationale

  • anne


    January 25th, 2013 at 1:11 PM

    does anybody serious think of this as a good thing? having dementia is no joke and silver lining or not these people suffer day in and day out there is no real positive here.

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