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.