Positive outlook predicts less memory decline – 9-year longitudinal study

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A US study found that people who feel enthusiastic and cheerful – what psychologists call "positive affect" – are less likely to experience memory decline as they age. This result adds to a growing body of research on positive affect's role in healthy ageing.

A team of researchers analysed data from 991 middle-aged and older US adults who participated in a national study conducted at three time periods: between 1995 and 1996, 2004 and 2006, and 2013 and 2014.

In each assessment, participants reported on a range of positive emotions they had experienced during the past 30 days. In the final two assessments, participants also completed tests of memory performance. These tests consisted of recalling words immediately after their presentation and again 15 minutes later.

The researchers examined the association between positive affect and memory decline, accounting for age, gender, education, depression, negative affect, and extraversion. "Our findings showed that memory declined with age," said Claudia Haase, an associate professor at Northwestern University and senior author on the paper.

"However, individuals with higher levels of positive affect had a less steep memory decline over the course of almost a decade," added Dr Emily Hittner, of Northwestern University and the paper's lead author. Areas of future research might address the pathways that could connect positive affect and memory, such as physical health or social relationships.

Memory decline is a concern for aging populations across the globe. Positive affect plays an important role in healthy aging, but its link with memory decline has remained unclear. In the present study, we examined associations between positive affect (i.e., feeling enthusiastic, attentive, proud, active) and memory (i.e., immediate and delayed recall), drawing from a 9-year longitudinal study of a national sample of 991 middle-age and older U.S. adults. Results revealed that positive affect was associated with less memory decline across 9 years when analyses controlled for age, gender, education, depression, negative affect, and extraversion. Findings generalized across another measure that assessed additional facets of positive affect, across different (but not all) facets of positive affect and memory, and across age, gender, and education; findings did not emerge for negative affect. Reverse longitudinal associations between memory and positive affect were not significant. Possible pathways linking positive affect and memory functioning are discussed.

Emily F Hittner, Jacquelyn E Stephens, Nicholas A Turiano, Denis Gerstorf, Margie E Lachman, Claudia M Haase


Association for Psychological Science material


Psychological Science abstract

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