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Dr. Catherine Haslam, University of Exeter – Thinking About Age

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Catherine Haslam of the University of Exeter reveals how our attitudes about our age can influence our performance on mental tasks.

Catherine Haslam is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Exeter. With an expertise in clinical and cognitive neuropsychology, her research addresses various topics concerning memory (anterograde, retrograde and semantic) in younger and older adults. She holds a Ph.D. from the Australian National University.

About Dr. Haslam

Dr. Catherine Haslam, University of Exeter – Thinking About Age

Shakespeare’s observation about age and intellect — when the age is in the wit is out — seems to have been correct. We now have evidence that people primed to think of themselves as older, perform worse on tests of mental and physical ability. But Shakespeare’s critical insight may not have been to link age with a lack of wit, but rather to observe that this link is contingent upon when: it is only when age is salient, or when we self-categorize as older, that performance declines.

Our research develops this insight by showing the profound effects that categorizing oneself as older, when combined with expectations about aging, has on clinical test performance.  We asked people between the ages of 60-70 years to think of themselves as either younger or older than others in our research. Within each age group, half were told that aging was associated with memory decline, the remainder that it was associated with a generalized decline. Before receiving this information, all performed normally on tests of mental ability. But afterwards, those encouraged to categorize as older showed a marked decline. The most striking was among people who both categorized as older and believed aging was associated with a generalised decline — 70% met the criterion for dementia diagnosis on a standard clinical screening test, compared to 14% in the remaining conditions.

So while we only see performance decline when we self-categorise as older, that decline can be profound. Importantly, the problem does not lie in the tests themselves. Rather, it’s the impact that self-categorizing as older has on us in responding to the test that’s critical. Awareness of these consequences is important. But more work is needed to establish the best ways to optimise performance in clinical contexts to reduce the risk of misdiagnosis.

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