A decline in older people’s ability to understand the mental states of others may not be directly related to ageing, new research led by Goldsmiths, University of London suggests.
The researchers set out to explore if people’s ‘theory of mind’, how they understand other’s intentions and thoughts, remained stable throughout adulthood.
Results from the study suggest that while older age is associated with a reduced ability to understand the mental states of other, this is linked to age-related cognitive decline rather than age alone. It implies that interventions to address this cognitive decline could help to avoid damaging social consequences such as isolation and loneliness among older people.
Dr Rebecca Charlton, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Goldsmiths and co-author of the study, said: “Popular culture has some unpleasant stereotypes of grumpy or anti-social old people but this impression may come from older people being less able to interpret why others act the way they do and react appropriately.
“Our research suggests losing the ability to ‘mind read’ – guess people’s intentions from subtle clues in their speech and body language – isn’t down to age alone. It shows some older people are able to retain this ability for longer or compensate using others skills giving us all hope that, with the right kinds of support, our social interactions can continue to be rewarding throughout our lives.”
The study, reported in the journal Neuropsychology, involved 60 adults aged between 17-95 years old responding to video scenarios designed to simulate real life situations. Participants watched a series of video clips showing the same two characters in different scenarios and were then asked to interpret each speaker’s intentions (for example: irony, persuasion, deception) and come up with an appropriate response.
Those taking part also answered questions about how good they thought they were at understanding and empathising with others, as well as taking tests to determine cognitive abilities such as working memory (keeping information in memory while updating it).
The experiments found that people’s ability to understand the mental states of others tended to change continuously throughout adulthood, gradually declining with age. However, as this decline was associated with declines in areas such as working memory and inhibitory control (the ability to override natural behaviours) it was not inevitable and so could be prevented by interventions to preserve these important cognitive abilities.
By contrast when asked in questionnaires older people did not report any decline in their ability to understand others and so may be unaware of the changes.
A report of the research, entitled ‘Cognitive and affective associations with an ecologically valid test of theory of mind across the lifespan’ is published in an upcoming issue of the journal Neuropsychology. The authors are from Goldsmiths and King’s College London.
Image: older couple. Photo: Linchilicious/Flickr