Negative feelings about aging can affect hearing and memory in older people

Older adults who have negative feelings about aging also perform less well in tests of hearing and memory when the negative feelings appear to undermine confidence in their ability to hear and remember things.
older lady on bench looking sad
Changing how older adults feel about themselves could improve their ability to hear and remember.

This was the finding of the first study to look at associations among three variables in the same group of older adults: views on aging, self-perceptions about one’s hearing and memory ability, and one’s actual performance in those skills.

The study, led by the University of Toronto in Canada, is published in the journal Psychology and Aging.

First author Alison Chasteen is a professor of psychology whose research interests include stereotyping across the lifespan and cognitive processes such as memory and attention in social contexts.

She explains there is a need to understand more about the factors that influence the daily lives of older people:

“People’s feelings about getting older influence their sensory and cognitive functions. Those feelings are often rooted in stereotypes about getting older and comments made by those around them that their hearing and memory are failing.”

The study involved 301 older participants aged from 56-96 who completed a series of tests on hearing and memory, and who also underwent assessments of their views and potential concerns about getting older.

Tests of hearing, memory and perception of ability

First, the participants completed standard hearing tests and performed a series of recall tasks to test their memory.

In the memory tests, they looked at one list of 15 words on a computer screen and listened to a different list of words on headphones. They were then invited to write down as many words as they could recall.

There was also another test where the participants were asked to listen to and repeat a list of five words straight away, and then recall them again after a wait of 5 minutes. This was a test of both hearing and memory.

To assess participants’ perception about their own hearing and memory abilities, the researchers asked them to respond to a series of questions and statements. For example, whether they agreed or disagreed with statements like: “I am good at remembering names,” or “I can easily have a conversation on the phone.”

To assess participants’ views on getting older, the researchers asked them to imagine 15 scenarios and give a score indicating their age-related concerns. For example, one scenario is about being involved in a car accident where it is not clear which driver is at fault. The participants are asked to rate how worried they would be about being blamed because of their age.

The participants were also asked to rate their level of concern about being able to find contentment, being alone as they aged or about losing their independence, or being more forgetful as they got older.

Link is stronger when negative views affect self-confidence

When they analyzed the results, the team found that participants who had negative views about aging – and who believed they had problems with their hearing and memory – also performed less well on tests of those abilities.

“That’s not to say all older adults who demonstrate poor capacities for hearing and memory have negative views of aging,” Prof. Chasteen says, adding:

“It’s not that negative views on aging cause poor performance in some functions, there is simply a strong correlation between the two when a negative view impacts an individual’s confidence in the ability to function.”

This indicates a need to appreciate these broader and wider factors when assessing older people’s cognitive and sensory health, she explains. The perceptions they have about their abilities and functioning and how they feel about getting older should be considered.

Prof. Chasteen suggests older people could benefit from learning how they can influence their own aging experience. This could be done by giving them practical exercises to improve thinking, memory and physical performance and help them cast off stereotypes about aging. She concludes:

“Knowing that changing how older adults feel about themselves could improve their abilities to hear and remember will enable the development of interventions to improve their quality of life.”

Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently reported a study that found home-delivered meals reduce feelings of loneliness in older people who are homebound. The randomly controlled trial concluded that Meals on Wheels goes beyond ensuring nutritional health; it also has a positive impact on the emotional health of older people in need.

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