Study participants who were encouraged to “feel old” performed significantly worse on a range of cognitive tests, according to research from the University of Exeter in England.
“When negative expectations relating to one’s group are salient, this typically leads to reduced test performance,” the researchers wrote. “Given the robustness of this effect, it is remarkable that these findings have failed to influence our assessment and diagnostic practices in educational, vocational and clinical settings.”
Catherine Haslam, PhD, and colleagues gathered data on 68 participants aged 60 to 70 years who had no history of significant trauma or illness, mood disturbance or diagnosed progressive conditions. The researchers created two groups by manipulating the participants into thinking they were either “older” or “younger.”
Participants were told that the study was to investigate how people of different ages performed on ability tests. “Older” participants were told that the participant age spectrum ranged from 40 to 70 years and that they placed at the upper end of the spectrum. “Younger” participants were told the age spectrum ranged from 60 to 90 years and that they were at the lower end of the spectrum. To reinforce the perception of feeling older, “older” participants were asked to remind the researcher administering the tests of their age.
Half of the participants were asked to read an article on how aging was associated with memory decline, whereas the other half read an article that said aging was associated with generalized cognitive decline. All of participants were asked to complete two questionnaires that measured how old they felt and the extent to which they identified themselves as older. The researchers then assessed participants’ immediate and delayed memory and general cognitive ability.
Results showed that 70% of “older” participants met the diagnostic criterion for dementia vs. 14% of “younger” participants. “Older” participants reported feeling older than those in the “younger” arm (P=.003) and also identified more strongly as an older person (P,.001), which the researchers said provided evidence that their manipulation had worked.
“Thus, being in [the ‘older’] group not only reduced performance, but also led participants to cross a recommended clinical boundary — increasing the likelihood of being identified with probable dementia on this test by 400%,” the researchers wrote.
Disclosure: The researchers report no relevant financial disclosures.