How Does Stress Impact Working Memory in Older People?

Older People Are Less Sensitive to the Effects of Stress on Working Memory Than Younger People. Here’s Why.

Much research has been conducted on the effects of acute stress on working memory in younger people, but little research has been done on how acute stress affects working memory in older people (55+).  Much research on stress has focused on cortisol levels. Cortisol, a steroid hormone, is released in response to stress. Some research has shown that cortisol levels do not impact working memory in older men. However, much is unknown about how acute stress affects older women

Two studies were conducted by Spanish researchers examining the effects of acute stress on working memory in both older men and women. 


The first study tested 30 men and 33 women on the Trier Social Stress Test followed by the Digit Span task. The Trier Social Stress Test is a laboratory run stress test known to reliably create a stressful experience that can allow researchers to measure stress via biomarker collection. The Digit Span task is a well studied working memory task that has print and computerized versions available. The purpose of this study was to look at the effect of stress on working memory in both older men and women. 


The second study tested 38 men and 38 women on a subsection of the Wechsler Memory Scale – III after completing the Trier Social Stress Test. The procedure for the second study was similar to the first study, except that researchers added a control task of talking aloud about a non-emotional topic for 5 minutes in addition to counting by 5 aloud. The purpose of the second study was to examine the effect of stress on a working memory task in comparison to a control task. 


For both studies, an anxiety assessment was done after performing the stress task and saliva samples were collected before and after completing the Digit Span and the subsection of the Wechsler Memory Scale III. 

What Did Researchers Find?

Researchers found sex differences in response to stress on memory in older people. Older women performed better on the Digit Span task after experiencing acute stress, while older men did not. Researchers believe that these results could be due to cortisol receptor gene expression differences as well as sex hormone differences between men and women. Regardless of the sex differences, the study concluded that older people are less sensitive to the effects of stress on working memory than younger people.

What does this Mean for Clinical Practice Regarding Older People?

Stress should be reduced in both younger and older people, but stress does have some beneficial effects such as pushing someone to perform better. However, there is a fine line between just enough stress and too much stress, which can cause depleted performance on cognitive tasks. If you are working with someone who experiences high levels of stress, try providing them with stress reduction techniques as well as helping your client learn to perform under stress. 


Maybe just like fine wine, both men and women really do get better with age. At least in regards to working memory. 

Dustin Luchmee

Dustin was HappyNeuron's Product Specialist. With research experience in stroke, Dustin learned how a stroke can change someone's life. He also learned how different kinds of therapists can work together to help a person get better. He is passionate about neuro-rehabilitation and finding the active ingredients for effective therapy.

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