Are the Elderly More Forgetful? By: Grace McTigue

There are many stereotypes about the elderly population, one of which including the notion that older people tend to be more forgetful than the rest of society. Although we all have our forgetful moments, does being elderly mean that we are more susceptible to these moments? Through my research I have found many articles that both contradict and confirm this specific stereotype, along with a possible explanation about how this stereotype came to be in the first place. A finding that contradicts this idea states that quality of life is related to forgetfulness rather than age. Findings that confirm this stereotype include evidence that many elderly people themselves believe that they are more forgetful than they have been in their previous years and also that there can be changes in cognitive abilities over time.

The first research article found contradicts this stereotype by claiming that quality of life is a detrimental factor of forgetfulness. This was a longitudinal study in which the researches wanted to explore cognitive aging (Mol, VanBoxtel, Dick, Frans, Jelle, 2009). The study consisted of 412 participants who were fifty-four years or older. Each participant was interviewed and tested at three, six, and nine years. Although by year six, there were only 263 participants mainly due to death and illness (Mol et al., 2009).

The study started off by asking participants if they considered themselves to be forgetful, as they were only allowed to answer with a yes or a no. Four measures were studied during the interviews and tests. The first had to do with satisfaction of life, the second was about mental well-being, and the third and fourth measured symptoms of anxiety and depression (Mol et al., 2009).

Results showed that forgetfulness can be associated with a lower quality of life (Mol et al., 2009). Therefore, this implies that forgetfulness is associated with quality of life rather than age. Also, within the study they found that the younger participants (54-69) reported lower qualities of life than the older participants (70-91); in which forgetfulness can be determined by low quality of life (Mol et al., 2009). Because the younger participants reported lower qualities of life than the older ones did, this then contradicts the stereotype that old aged people are more forgetful than the rest of the population.

Another study that contradicts this stereotype had to do with whether or not certain priming conditions would increase or decrease the memory of a group of old aged people. First, participants for this study consisted of sixty healthy people within the age range of sixty and eighty-five. These participants were not aware of the purpose of the study and were all tested in their homes, which classified as comfortable environments for them where they were able to focus at their best.

The methods of this experiment were quite simple and only took a few hours for the participants to complete. First, there was a priming activity which researchers referred to as a “scrambled sentence task.” Participants were randomly assigned to either a positive, neutral, or negative priming group. Each person was given twenty cards with five words on each card and were instructed to pick four words off of the card in order to form a sentence (Akpinar & Otmar, 2016). Also, every card had at least one adjective about elderly stereotypes, which the participants were not aware of. The positive priming group had favorable adjectives about stereotypes such as: accomplished, active, dignified, etc., the negative priming group had degrading adjectives such as: impatient, unsuccessful, inexperienced, etc., and the neutral groups did not have any adjective pertaining to a stereotype (Akpinar & Otmar, 2016). After the priming activity, participants used a tablet to perform tasks one would do at a grocery store, known as the Multiple Errands Task (MET). They were given instructions about what to ‘purchase at the grocery store.’ After these directions, they would then have to shop for these items while trying to remember the very specific instructions about what to purchase.

Results for this experiment showed that the positive priming group performed better on the MET than the negative and neutral groups did. This goes to show that positive stereotype views regarding the elderly can be beneficial for them because it strengthens their confidence which in turn helps with cognitive functioning. This could then also contribute to how this particular stereotype came to be. This is partly because, at least in America, there are many negative stereotypes about elderly people. Considering that the positive feedback improved the scores of the group, it could perhaps be hypothesized that the negative views of the older population somehow impairs their capability for memory.

Next, the purpose of the first research article that supports this stereotype about the elderly being forgetful was to examine what old aged people themselves thought about the expected part of aging (EPR). This was a population based, cross-sectional design study comprised of 550 participants. Every participant was from Jilin Province, China and at least sixty years of age, with the average age turning out to be sixty-six years old; while the ratio of gender was about half male and half female. Requirements of these participants were that they must speak Chinese and be willing to complete an interview. The purpose of this study was explained to the participants and confidentiality was assured.

Each participant completed an approximately thirty-minute face to face interview about their own personal EPR’s. These questions had to do with physical, mental, and cognitive health (Li et al., 2013). Regarding the results about forgetfulness, more than four-fifths of the adults felt that being forgetful was an expected part of aging (Li et al., 2013). Nevertheless, this confirms the stereotype that forgetfulness comes with old age because 80% of old aged people rate themselves as forgetful.

Another study that confirms this stereotype took place in Linkoping, Sweden. “The purpose of this study was to investigate the relationship between concurrent longitudinal changes in cognition, depression, self-rated health and everyday function (Classon, Fallman, Wressle, Marcusson, 2016).” Eighty-three participants took part in the study, and their cognitive functioning was measured using the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) in order to meet participant qualifications that the study required.

The study took place in 2007; the first follow up was in 2008 and the second follow up was five years later in 2013. The first two phases comprised of “a postal questionnaire, a home visit by an occupational therapist and a visit to a memory clinic (Classon et al., 2016).” The second follow up on the study only consisted of a home visit, due to a few limitations, in which there was a self-report questionnaire and an MMSE.

Results found that there were “associations between change in cognition, depressive symptoms, self-rated health and functional ability (Classon et al., 2016).” Regarding the results about changes in cognition, the stereotype about forgetfulness and the elderly can be supported because this proves that over the years it is possible for a decline in cognition to occur, resulting in a potential loss of memory capacity.

In conclusion, there are many stereotypes about old aged people; just one of them being that they tend to be more forgetful than the rest of the population. First, I see this stereotype to be contradicted when discovering that quality of life is correlated to forgetfulness more than age is. I see this stereotype confirmed when researchers found that older folks themselves believe that they are more forgetful and that changes in cognition can result as time goes on. Lastly, through my research I found that this stereotype may have partly been put in practice because of the negative ways society views the elderly, which in turn could cause low confidence and therefore lower competence in their memory skills.


Bock, O., Akpinar, S. (2016) Performance of older persons in a simulated shopping task is influenced by priming with age stereotypes. PLoS ONE, 11(9), 1-11. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0160739

Classon, E., Fallman, K., Wressle, Ewa., Marcusson, J. (2016) Relations between concurrent longitudinal changes in cognition, depressive symptoms, self-rated health and everyday function in normally aging octogenarians. PLoS ONE, 11(8), 1-17. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0160742

Li, X., Lv, Q., Li, C., Zhang, H., Li, C., Jin, J. (2013). The relationship between expectation regarding aging and functional health status among older adults in china. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 45(4), 328-335. doi: 10.1111/jnu.12036

Mol, M., VanBoxtel, M., Dick, W., Frans, V., Jelle, J. (2009) Subjective forgetfulness is associated with lower quality of life in middle-aged and young-old individuals: a 9-year follow-up in older participants from the Maastricht aging study. Aging & Mental Health, 13(5), 699-705. doi: 10.1080/13607860902845541


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s