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Memory may affect older adults' emotional state

Memory may affect older adults' emotional state
18th April 2016

Memory appears to be an important part of how older adults regulate their emotional state, according to a new study.

Conducted by research psychologists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the study aimed to investigate the associations between a person's level of episodic memory (their ability to recall experiences of a specific time and place) and how long it takes them to return to an emotion equilibrium after an emotional event - known as 'emotion recovery'. The fact that the relationship between emotion recovery and episodic memory has never been studied was the driving force behind the research.

The researchers were particularly interested in how well people were able to return to a level emotional state after experiencing an emotional event.

Published in Experimental Aging Research, the study added weight to the theory that older adults use their cognitive resources differently to their younger counterparts, particularly when it comes to both processing emotions and regulating them.

If further research proves this to be the case, it could help pave the way for strategies to preserve emotional health during the ageing process - and provide insight into how cognitive decline affects overall emotional wellbeing.

The study was led by associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst Rebecca Ready, alongside her graduate student Gennarina Santorelli. To conduct their research, the pair looked at 23 younger adults (aged 19 to 23) and 21 midlife and older adults (aged 52 to 79). 

All participants were asked to complete a questionnaire about their current emotions before watching a 12-minute video montage. This montage included clips from four films - including 'Up' and 'Sophie's Choice' - all touching on different kinds of interpersonal loss. The participants were asked to complete another questionnaire on their emotions immediately after the screening, and then a final time after a brief recovery period.

As well as measuring how the montage made them feel, the participants' memory was tested. Each person was shown 15 still photos, ten of which were from other videos, and five of which were from the montage they were shown. They also completed a questionnaire on events that happened in the clips.

The results demonstrated two clear findings. First of all, participants who could recall the details of the montage more clearly recovered better in terms of mood than those with poorer memories. Secondly, there was a more pronounced positive association between good memory and strong emotional recovery in older adults than younger - all with normal-range cognition.

This indicates that the role of memory in emotional regulation is more important as we get older. However, the association between the two was noticed across both age ranges. 

The researchers note that more work needs to be done in this area to explore the links between emotional regulation and recovery, and episodic memory. They note that as well as studying a more diverse group of participants, ideally they would examine midlife and older adults separately, and consider alternative explanations for the link - such as feeling discouraged after memory tests.