Know someone who's about to turn 50? The mail will soon bring greetings that can strike terror in many a heart: An invitation to join the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). That dreaded condition known as the normal aging process has arrived.
A new study shows that fearing the loss of memory, one of those so-called "normal" symptoms of aging, can actually make a person more forgetful. Especially if he or she is highly educated.
Worrying about aging and memory loss, according to psychology professor Tom Hess of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, can become a "self-fulfilling prophesy." He suspects those concerns begin earlier for many, partly because of that subtle invitation to join the growing ranks of seniors.
"If you worry about this [loss of memory and other cognitive functions], it might become part of your psyche and have this pervasive effect, regardless of what's happening," Hess said in an interview.
He is the lead author of a study in Experimental Aging Research, co-authored by Joey Hinson and Elizabeth Hodges, also of North Carolina State.
It's not a large study and the findings cannot be considered conclusive. But they are consistent with earlier work by Hess and others showing that seniors are particularly concerned and, thus, more likely to show anxiety when confronted with questions about memory loss.
The researchers conducted several experiments with 103 seniors in two groups, ages 60 to 70 and 71 to 82, to see how certain cues would affect their ability to perform tasks in math and memorization.
Some participants, for example, were told they were going to take a test that would explain why younger and older adults perform so differently on memory tests. They were also told to write down their age just before taking the test. Those are considered "threats" in psychological research.
Other participants, however, were told that the test was "free of age-related biases" and adults of various ages should perform similarly on the test, considered a "non threat" status.
As expected, the "threatened" participants performed much more poorly on a memorization test than the non-threatened participants, especially in the 60-70 group. Participants in the older group were less affected by the threat, possibly because they already knew they were old and have adjusted to that fact.
But here's a finding that may seem surprising, although the experimenters expected it. Participants with more education were more affected by the "threat" of losing their memory than participants with less education. That was true in all the experiments, and across all age groups.
Yet numerous other studies have shown that more educated people are better equipped to deal with the stresses of aging, and even delay the onset of such debilitating conditions as cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease. Hess said the two are not inconsistent.
In his experiments, he said, it is likely that more educated people were more affected by worrying about their memory because "they, perhaps, are more sensitive to negative stereotyping of their cognitive skills, because they are more important to them."
So, initially at least, they perform worse on memorization tests than people with less education because they worry more about losing it.
But more education should help people meet cognitive challenges head on, exercising their brain well into old age, which has been shown to delay age-related mental decline.
That's one of the reasons for a significant decline in mental impairment among older Americans in recent years, according to a study last year of 11,000 elderly people by the University of Michigan Health System.
That study found that among people 70 and older, cognitive impairment went down by 3.5 percentage points between 1993 and 2002, from 12.2 percent to 8.7 percent, a difference that affected hundreds of thousands of people.
The researchers attributed that large decline to "more formal education, higher economic status, and better care for risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking that can jeopardize their brains."
"We know mental stimulation has an impact on the way a person's brain is 'wired,' and that education early in life likely helps build up a person's cognitive reserve," Kenneth Langa, associate professor of internal medicine, said in releasing the Michigan study. "So what we may be seeing here is the accumulated effects of better education and better cardiovascular prevention among the people who were over age 70 in 2002, compared with those who were over age 70 in 1993."
That would suggest that the people in Hess' study are a bit too worried about mental decline and aging. Things are getting better, not worse, according to the Michigan study.
Maybe people are just more aware of what happens as they age than they used to be and, thus, they worry about it more, and it doesn't just depend on learning that the age of senior discounts is approaching. It's hard to ignore sore joints, aching muscles and, of course, those occasional "senior moments" when memory temporarily fails.
"Negative stereotypes seem to be particularly strong in people who are just entering old age, starting around 60 or 65," Hess said. "When you find yourself at that particular age, there may be cues in the environment that make you overly sensitive" to aging.
He's not suggesting that people ignore the obvious signs of aging. But, according to his research, worrying about it too much could backfire.