Older adults who have a heightened fear of losing their memory appear to be more likely to experience memory failure and have a poorer quality of life, a new international study led by Irish researchers has found.
Until now, few studies have looked at the impact of memory-related fear on daily functioning. A team at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), working in collaboration with researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK, the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands and Northwestern University in the US, decided to investigate this further.
They looked at whether fear of memory decline predicted increased memory failure and poorer quality of life in older adults. To do this, they developed a novel scale - the 'fear of memory loss (FAM) scale' - which looked at specific fears, such as becoming dependent on others, loss of identity and being treated differently by friends or colleagues.
It also looked at specific coping strategies, such as avoiding social situations for fear of embarrassment. The participants were aged between 59 and 81 years.
The study found that those with higher levels of fear about memory loss were significantly more likely to report memory issues, and were also much more likely to have a lower quality of life.
There was no difference in the level of fear expressed between those who had a family history of dementia and those who did not. Overall, 57% said they worried about losing their memory and how people would treat them if they did.
This result, the researchers said, is consistent with evidence of a widespread fear of dementia among the general population.
"Almost 80% of the general public are concerned about developing dementia, according to the World Alzheimer Report 2019. Evidence also suggests that these fears increase with age. Given global population aging and the increased visibility of dementia, it is crucial that we find ways to address peoples' fears.
"Understanding and tackling these fears will serve to promote brain health and wellbeing, and reduce societal stigma for people living with disease and their carers," commented the study's lead author, Dr Francesca Farina, of TCD's Global Brain Health Institute.
The researchers suggested that perceived changes in memory result in fear, which over time, leads to avoidance and social withdrawal. This combination of fear and avoidance has a negative impact on everyday functioning, which then impairs mood and the sense of self.
They said that identifying effective ways to challenge fears about dementia could prove beneficial to people. On an individual level, it could reduce fear, which could lead to improvements in how people view their memory function and quality of life.
Furthermore, at societal level, acknowledging and addressing fears about dementia could help to eliminate stigma associated with the condition.
Details of these findings are published in the journal, Aging and Mental Health.
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