A strong memory may help people recover from an emotional event, and this appears particularly true for older adults, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The findings also suggest that older adults with memory impairment may be at risk for emotion dysregulation.
The study is the first to investigate the link between episodic memory performance — recalling specific past experiences — and what is known as “emotion recovery,” the return to a normal state of emotion after an emotional event in adults of differing ages.
Researcher Rebecca Ready, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences, explains that our cognitive and emotional processes are closely interconnected, and this may be particularly true for older adults. She adds that “older adults with stronger scores on cognitive tasks have advantages in regulating their emotions.”
For the study, Ready and her graduate student Gennarina Santorelli asked 23 younger adults (ages 19-23) and 21 midlife and older adults (ages 52-79) to complete a questionnaire about their current emotional state just before watching a 12-minute montage of four movie clips portraying interpersonal loss. Immediately after viewing the sad video montage and again after a brief recovery period, participants reported on their current emotions.
The four clips were from the films “Up,” “Steel Magnolias,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “Pay It Forward.” Each clip pertained to a different type of personal loss and evoked a broad range of emotional responses in viewers. Participants reacted with stronger feelings of sadness and hostility, as well as decreased feelings of joviality, which is characterized by a cheerful and friendly mood.
To test the participants’ memory of the film clip details, particularly visual images, the researchers showed them 15 still photos, five from the videos and 10 from other videos. Participants also answered questions about events that happened in the videos.
The researchers were particularly interested in the participants’ emotion recovery after the end of the film montage. For example, they were interested in how much feelings of sadness declined back to normal after the films ended.
“Participants with better memory for details about the films recovered more thoroughly from the mood induction than participants with lower scores,” write the researchers.
And age appeared to have an effect as well. Specifically, there was a significantly stronger, positive association between better memory and recovering feelings of joviality among midlife and older adults compared to younger adults.
Recovery of positive emotions following the sad film was more strongly associated with better memory in middle-aged and older participants than in younger adults. Ready says this finding is consistent with other lab findings showing that when it comes to processing emotions, older adults use their cognitive resources differently than do younger adults.
The researchers would like to conduct a more thorough exploration of recovery from negative emotions, particularly with a larger and more diverse sample. This future research should examine midlife and older adults separately.
Also, Ready says that future research should determine if memory impairment in older adults is associated with emotion dysregulation and incomplete recovery from negative experiences.
The findings are published in the journal Experimental Aging Research.