July 23, 1998 Writer: Cathy Keen
Source: Robin West, (352) 392-2116
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Older people are much less likely to have major memory problems if they believe in themselves and work to improve their recall, a newly released University of Florida study finds.
The elderly are more likely than younger people to buy into the stereotype that they can't control their memory, and it affects not only their self-esteem but also how hard they try to remember, said Robin West, a UF psychology professor who did the research.
"Some of the research shows that people can improve their memory performance by as much as 50 percent if they work at it, use the right strategies and challenge themselves," said West, author of the book "Memory Fitness Over 40." "I really try to convince older people that they need to think of themselves in terms of their potential rather than their losses. Yes, there are losses, but there is also enormous potential at any age to improve memory, just as there is potential to improve strength."
In the study conducted by psychology graduate student Monica Yassuda, more than 200 older and young adults were divided into two groups. One group was told memory is a skill that can be improved with effort, and the other group that the ability to remember is fixed forever at birth, she said.
"There is some indication in the literature that older people tend to see memory as something they can't control -- you either have a good memory or you don't," West said.
The researchers decided to examine how preconceptions affect memory by using an exercise to test a common concern that people have: the ability to remember names, she said.
In four trials, participants were shown videotapes of people telling their names and then were asked to remember the names when the images reappeared on the screen.
The study found people told their memory could not be controlled were more apt to report making less effort and using fewer strategies, such as associating a name with an image, to remember people's names, she said.
Older adults were more likely than their younger counterparts to react to the information given to the two groups, probably because they accept the notion that memory can not be improved, West said.
"The results show that we need to encourage older adults to think of themselves as a group that has the potential to have a better memory if they work at it," she said.
Other studies, which were conducted by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, have found the belief that people can control part of their lives is a good predictor of whether they age well mentally and physically, West said.
"We used to see it as a chicken-or-egg proposition," she said. "Is having control something that allows you to age successfully, or does aging successfully make you feel like you have more control? One thing about our work as well as the MacArthur Foundation research is that it found that having a feeling of mastery predicted whether or not people used strategies that could ultimately make them more successful."
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