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Oldsters: If you think you'll lose your memory, you will

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Here's one for all those concerned at the prospect of advancing age gradually stripping away their, erm, wait, tip of my tongue - memory. Bad news: your ability to retain information will indeed disappear as you get older. But, in a cruel twist of fate, if you aren't concerned you'll be fine.

Yes, you read that right. New research by American oldness profs has revealed that senior citizens who believe that age affects memory are self-fulfilling prophets. They score much worse on memory tests than those who don't believe in decline with age.

Dr Tom Hess of North Carolina State University believes that poor performance by oldsters in memory tests may be as much the result of being victimised by society as anything else.

"Older adults will perform more poorly on a memory test if they are told that older folks do poorly on that particular type of memory test," says Hess. "Such situations [being stigmatised] may be a part of older adults' everyday experience.

"The positive flip side of this is that those who do not feel stigmatized, or those in situations where more positive views of aging are activated, exhibit significantly higher levels of memory performance."

So basically, if you are old and believe the nasty whippersnappers who expect you to be forgetful, you will be. But if you don't, you won't.

Of course, it might also be that those in the survey who believed in old people's forgetfulness held that belief because they had found their own memories deteriorating: this could account for their poor performance in the tests. Assuming that they could still remember how much better their memory used to be, of course.

Similarly, the ageing-decline sceptics may have been sceptical because they were personally unaffected, so accounting for their better test scores.

Returning to Hess' theory that memory loss is caused by stigmatisation, one might also expect to see some self-correction at work: Old person is stigmatised, begins to lose memory, gets stigmatised more, becomes very forgetful indeed - and at some point forgets that he or she has been stigmatised, and that old people are supposed to be forgetful - so triggering a recovery.

Anyway. We seem to have lost our train of thought. Those wishing to go further into the matter can read Hess' paper courtesy of the journal Experimental Aging Research here (subscription). ®

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