It is good news for the Victor Meldrews of this world. Senior citizens accused of being grumpy and less patient with others may be able to blame changes in their brain.
Older men and women who struggle to understand others – and show irritation as a result – are thought to be suffering from the same loss of brain function which causes memory problems.
A study of 60 people aged 17 to 95 found older people were worse at identifying others’ emotions and intentions.
Memory tests and general cognitive ability trials were checked against their general mood
Many also under-performed in memory tests – suggesting they had a declining ‘cognitive function’ relating to both empathy and memory.
However, failing to pick up on others’ feelings, which can cause isolation in old age, is not an inevitable part of ageing.
The same study – by Goldsmiths, University of London – found those with a better memory were also more empathetic, so less likely to appear grumpy.
Co-author Dr Rebecca Charlton, a senior lecturer in psychology, said the stereotype of the ‘grumpy old man’ may stem from older people being unable to understand others and so react appropriately.
But she added: ‘Some older people are able to retain this ability for longer or compensate using other skills, giving us all hope that, with the right kinds of support, our social interactions can continue to be rewarding throughout our lives.’
The study involved showing participants a series of videos featuring two recurring characters. They were then asked to identify an intention, such as deception or persuasion, for each speaker.
The study showed that older people were not less likely to be empathetic – but they were if they were more forgetful
The older people were, the worse they fared, researchers found. And strong performance in this task also correlated with success in memory tests based on recall of sequences of letters and numbers.
The study concluded older people are not fundamentally worse at empathy – it is simply more likely to be the case if they also happen to be forgetful.
A separate questionnaire asking participants if they could tell whether people were happy or sad found these skills were not dependent on age.
The results suggest that activities which can help slow the decline of the brain, such as exercise, crosswords and staying socially active, might also slow a loss of empathy. The study is published in the journal Neuropsychology.