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Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2013 Aug;38(8):1388-96. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.12.004. Epub 2013 Jan 24.

When we test, do we stress? Impact of the testing environment on cortisol secretion and memory performance in older adults.

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Centre for Studies on Human Stress, Mental Health Research Centre Fernand Seguin, Hospital Louis H Lafontaine, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.



The majority of studies find that older adults have worse memory performance than young adults. However, contextual features in the testing environment may be perceived as stressful by older adults, increasing their stress hormone levels. Given the evidence that older adults are highly sensitive to the effects of stress hormones (cortisol) on memory performance, it is postulated that a stressful testing environment in older adults can lead to an acute stress response and to memory impairments.


The current study compared salivary cortisol levels and memory performance in young and older adults tested in environments manipulated to be stressful (unfavourable condition) or not stressful (favourable condition) for each age group.


28 young adults and 32 older adults were tested in two testing conditions: (1) a condition favouring young adults (constructed to be less stressful for young adults), and (2) a condition favouring older adults (constructed to be less stressful for older adults). The main outcome measure was salivary cortisol levels. Additionally, immediate and delayed memory performances were assessed during each condition.


In older adults only, we found significantly high cortisol levels and low memory performance in the condition favouring young adults. In contrast, cortisol levels were lower and memory performance was better when older adults were tested in conditions favouring them. There was no effect of testing condition in young adults.


The results demonstrate that older adults' memory performance is highly sensitive to the testing environment. These findings have important implications for both research and clinical settings in which older adults are tested for memory performance.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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