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12 Feb

Health and well being in old age can be boosted if you ‘live in the moment’.

Health and well being as you get older does not depend on your memory or what you can remember – it is driven by how you view your identity in the present moment.

That’s according to research into the relationship between memory, identity and well being in older people that could improve support for people suffering with dementia.

Changes in memory as people grow older can have a big impact on daily life and relationships with others. As well as forgetting simple day-to-day tasks, people can forget personal and life events.

“This type of memory – autobiographical memory – plays a central role in our sense of identity, and we wanted to explore how it would relate to well being,” explains Dr Clare Rathbone of Oxford Brookes University.

As part of a three-year study researchers tested 32 younger and 32 older adults on their memory, sense of identity and well being.

Findings show that general forgetfulness, a common experience among many older adults, is not related to well being at all.

“Not being able to remember things or life events to the same extent as younger people didn’t mean older people felt unhappier with life,” Dr Rathbone points out.

“Rather, we found that older people tended to be happier with their descriptions of ‘who they were’ and having a positive view of their self-image or identity was key to their well being. Among younger people, the same relationship between identity and well being did not occur.”

When their memory performance was tested younger participants in the study were able to remember more than older participants. But, interestingly, although older people scored less highly on memory tests, even when older people reported only very positive memories, this was not related to their general well being.

“Our results suggest that well being in older age does not depend on what you remember, or even how good your memory is – what is crucial is how you conceptualise your identity in the present moment,” says Dr Rathbone.

These findings could, researchers suggest, pave the way for future research aimed at supporting well being in people with very severe memory impairments and even dementia. “Having a sense of identity does not require complex memories for support,” she says. “By finding new ways to help older people develop more positive views of themselves in the present moment it may be possible – despite memory loss – to support well being in later life.” (originally published in Society Now magazine)

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