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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