The Antecedents of Cognitive Age

ABSTRACT - Gerontological explanations for the disparity between cognitive age and actual age were explored. Life satisfaction, activity levels, health, and culture influenced the discrepancy between cognitive age and actual age. Family relationships were not related to the age discrepancy.


Caroline Chua, Joseph A. Cote, and Siew Meng Leong (1990) ,"The Antecedents of Cognitive Age", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 880-885.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 880-885


Caroline Chua, National University of Singapore

Joseph A. Cote, Washington State University

Siew Meng Leong, National University of Singapore


Gerontological explanations for the disparity between cognitive age and actual age were explored. Life satisfaction, activity levels, health, and culture influenced the discrepancy between cognitive age and actual age. Family relationships were not related to the age discrepancy.

Age segmentation is popular because it is operationally simple and intuitively logical. Barak with others (1980, 1985, 1986, 1988) has suggested that cognitive age rather than chronological age should be used as a basis for segmentation since it better reflects an individual's identity and behavior. While chronological age may be related to life events and people with similar ages may have similarities in lifestyle, health, and mental outlook (Reynolds and Rentz 1981), chronological age merely indicates birth date and causes nothing to occur (Jarvik 1975). Therefore, chronological age may be an inadequate basis for segmentation since it merely describes the market but does not provide an understanding of underlying consumer motivations.

Past research on cognitive age has focused on the relationship between chronological and cognitive age. The level of agreement between them is low suggesting that cognitive age captures a separate dimension of age not revealed by birth dates (Kastenbaum, Derbin, Sabatini, and Steven 1972; Barak and Schiffman 1980; Barak and Gould 1985; Barak and Stern 1985, 1986). There is also evidence that cognitive age may predict behavior better than chronological age (Smith and Moschis 1984). However, consumer researchers have not examined how cognitive age is related to consumer motivations. In order to improve our understanding of how cognitive age might be related to consumer motivations, this paper examines the relationship between the predictors of successful aging and cognitive age. The paper builds on research in the gerontology literature which has examined the relationship of aging and life satisfaction.


Gerontological research takes a developmental perspective toward the aging process, focusing on tasks (such as family relationships, activity levels, and physical well-being) over the life cycle (Havighurst 1972). These experiences vary during the life span and have varying effects on life satisfaction. Inevitably, aspects in the life course affect cognitive age for much the same reason they can affect life satisfaction. People able to cope with age transitions will not feel the effects of age as much as people unable to cope.

Life satisfaction depends on social interaction, which changes throughout the family and career life cycle (Mass and Kuypers 1974, Havighurst 1972). Social role changes occur from life events like retirement and reduced incomes, death of a spouse, establishing an explicit affiliation with one's age group, and meeting social and civic obligations (Havighurst 1972). While life events and transitions may be similar for everyone, people's ability to adapt differs. People better able to cope with transitions will be more satisfied. Mass and Kuypers (1974) suggest four lifestyle patterns among the elderly. Among these, the "family centered person" and the "hobbyist" were found to be-more adaptive and experienced-greater life satisfaction than the "remotely sociable" and "disorganized" types specific social interactions (activity levels and family relationships) will be examined in more detail below.

Activity Levels

Although there is a tendency for old people to become less active, Neugarten, Havighurst, and Tobin (1964) found that life satisfaction was greater in older people who were socially active and engaged than those who were inactive and disengaged. Blau (1973) also found life satisfaction increases with new roles and other socially interactive alternatives. ". . . Aging involves an unusual amount of personal change and status ambiguity.; ." (Ward 1977). Periods of personal change often result in increased self awareness (Rosenberg 1965). As a person becomes less active the realities of the aging process are more likely to be recognized. Discrepancies between now and when they were younger will be more obvious, making them feel older. People who remain active will not experience increased self awareness and are less likely to "feel their age.'

Family Relationships

Life satisfaction is also highly correlated with family interactions (Lohman 1977). Family relationships and roles provide a sense of continuity, personalized interaction, and affection during the life span. Family ties become increasingly important sources of satisfaction as other roles are lost (Cherlin 1983). The life satisfaction attained from better family relationships means greater fulfillment in those roles, leading to a younger cognitive age perception. In addition, better family relations will also increase general activity levels.

Biological Factors

Even healthy older people experience declines in: energy, muscular strength, speed of response, sight and hearing; and have difficulty in adapting to extreme heat or cold (Marsh 1980). Health affects the performance of basic tasks and expected social roles as well as affects adjustments to changing life conditions (Birren 1964, Botwinick 1978, Bromley 1974). Since the body symbolizes a part of the individual's identity, illness has a negative effect on self-esteem and age perception. Moos and Tsu (1977) found a positive relationship between good health and satisfaction. In the same way, emotional health influences successful aging patterns; those who perceive themselves to be healthy are likely to be more satisfied than others (Neugarten 1968). Mutran and Reitzes (1981) observed that self-reported health status also affects levels of activity.

Less healthy old people need to adapt more to changing life conditions. Activities and food enjoyed at a younger age can be experienced less frequently, or not at all. How often do we hear, "I must be getting old" when simple physical activities result in aches or favorite foods cause indigestion. As health problems begin to affect the enjoyment of activities, people will begin to feel old. Conversely, healthy older people will continue to see themselves as young since health does not affect their lifestyle.


Adaptation to developmental tasks varies depending on the extent to which different societies give deference and prestige to the old. It was suggested by Lebra (1976) that increased age brings increased status in the Chinese culture. Conversely, Kimmel (1988) found that a negative connotation towards aging exists in Western culture. Given these characteristics, a chronologically old person would experience different age perceptions depending on the cultural context. Older Westerners prefer to perceive themselves as young because their actual age status is not respected. When age is respected, as in the Chinese culture, the elderly would accept their actual age more willingly.


Based on the discussion presented above, five hypotheses will be examined.

H1: Higher satisfaction experienced in life results in a younger cognitive age.

H2: Higher levels of activity result in a younger cognitive age.

H3: Closer family relationships result in a younger cognitive age.

H4: More healthy elderly persons will feel younger than the less healthy.

H5: Those inclined to the Western culture will have a younger cognitive age than those inclined to a Chinese culture.


A convenience sample of 301 elderly Singaporeans was given a self-administered questionnaire in either English or Mandarin. The Mandarin questionnaire was back translated to English to ensure its accurate interpretation in both languages. The sample, selected from diverse groups, included several associations for the elderly, (n=140 eg., Singapore Retirees Association, Singapore Action Group for Elders, senior citizens clubs in community centers, clan associations, Dying Aid Society, and religious organizations), outpatient clinics (n=70), lunchtime crowd of the Stock Exchange of Singapore (n=20), and grandparents of colleagues and friends (n=71). The sample appeared- to be an adequate representation of the various socioeconomic class. All participants were 55 years or older. Although aging is a lifelong process, the elderly are defined as persons 55 years of age or older for empirical purposes (Neugarten 1968). In Singapore, 55 is also the official government retirement age. None of the respondents were institutionalized, a common sampling limitation of previous research on elderly consumer behavior (Bernhardt and Kinnear 1976). While the age range, cultural orientation, and nonrandom nature of the sample prevents broad generalizations, it was felt the sample was acceptable for a test of the theoretical relationships specified in the hypotheses.


Each of the independent variables was constructed by lifestyle questions encompassing the activities, interests, opinions (AIO) of each individual (Wells and Tigert 1971). Agreement with each AIO statement was assessed using 7-point Likert-type scales. There were both positive and reversed statements included to control for possible acquiescence bias. Some fill in the blanks were also used to enhance the validity of the findings. The items of the independent variables were generated from earlier studies of the elderly (Wells 1974; Schutz, Baird, and Hawkes 1979).

Life satisfaction was defined as the type of gratification that an individual's life circumstances make available to him and allows him to attain. Ten items, such as "I am happier now than I ever was before," were designed to assess the effect life satisfaction has on cognitive age.

Activity levels are reflected in the respondent's patterns and attitudes towards levels of activity. Daily activities such as group membership, solitary activity, and interpersonal

relationships were examined using ten items such as "I often take an active part in local civic issues." Those who are presently working answered three additional AIO statements since their activity levels differ from those who are retired. Finally, nine fill in the blank questions on the number of times the respondents participated in different activities were asked. Both the Likert-type and objective measures were included to provide a measure for both attitudes toward activity levels and respondents' actual activity.

The family life measure estimates the satisfaction with family ties and number of activities done together with members of the family. The scale consists of seven Likert-type items and six fill in the blank.

Health was assessed using eight AIO statements related to various aspects of health including general overall health, energy level, and speed of recovery.

Language was used to assess culture orientation since it is a major determinant of an individual's mode of thought (Whorf 1956). The respondent specified what language he spoke most on a 5-point entirely English - entirely Chinese scale. The level of fluency of each language was obtained on a 3-point scale ranging from fluent to poor. Although language is not a perfect measure of cultural orientation, it is a commonly used component of cultural orientation measures. A more comprehensive measure was not used because of space limitations.

Cognitive age was measured using four questions: 1) I feel as though I am in my ___; 2) I look as though I am in my ___; 3) I do things as though I am in my ___; 4) My interests are mostly those of a person in their ___ (Kastenbaum et al. 1972; Barak and Schiffman 1980). Cognitive age was calculated as an average of the four age aspects.


Factor analysis was conducted to determine the component structure of the multi-item independent variables. Factor scores were then used in a multiple regression analysis. The dependent variable in the regression analysis was the difference between actual age and cognitive age (hereafter referred to as the age differential). The age differential was used since the objective is to determine the factors that lead to a younger or older age perception.


The correlation between chronological and cognitive age was performed to determine any significant differences between them. This was done separately for those below and above 65 years of age. The results indicate both chronological and cognitive age are different from each other (r = 0.4729 and 0.4736 for below and above 65 years respectively). This points to the fact that cognitive age is capturing aspects of age that are not adequately reflected in the elderly's chronological age. Further, the cognitive age was constantly younger than the chronological age in both age groups. Both these findings are consistent with past research.

Factor analysis produced three dimensions for life satisfaction (see Table 1). The factors were identified as contentment, attitudes, and daily encounters. There were also three factors for health signs of aging, physical health, and strength. The activity level measure had four factors for the Likert-type scales (inactivity, social, enthusiasm, and work). Family life had two factors for the Likert-type scales (affection and pride). Each factor was used as a separate variable in the regression analysis, for a total of 13 independent variables.

Overall, the independent variables were able to explain 22.7% of the variation in the difference between actual and cognitive age (see Table 2). The age differential was negatively related to the attitude factor of life satisfaction supporting Hypothesis 1. A positive attitude results in respondents feeling younger than their actual-age. Hypothesis 2 was also supported since the actual activity and enthusiasm factors were significantly and negatively correlated with the age differential. This indicates that respondents felt younger when activity levels were high. Hypothesis 3 was not supported. None of the family life factors were related to the age differential. Two dimensions of the health factor (signs of aging and physical health) were negatively and significantly correlated with the age differential supporting -Hypothesis 4. The old person who did not experience diminished functioning associated with age felt younger than their actual age. Hypothesis 5 was also supported. English-speaking respondents were more likely to feel younger than their actual age as apposed to the Chinese-speaking respondents.


Previous research on cognitive age has shown it is different than chronological age and may better explain consumer behavior in certain circumstances. However, the reasons why this might be so, and how cognitive age can affect consumer behavior has not been examined. This paper has examined several possible antecedents to cognitive age. Cognitive age was found to be related to life satisfaction, activity level, physical health, and culture. Surprisingly, family relationships were not found to affect cognitive age. This may be due to the strength of family relationships in Singapore, which vary little across families. Since almost all families are close, the ability of family relationships to explain variations in cognitive age would be masked.

These findings suggest that cognitive age, as a distinct construct, may be used to partially reconcile several contradictory findings in the literature on elderly consumer behavior. For example, in the health care marketing context, differing levels of consumerist activities were found to be present among elderly consumers. In his review, Tongren (1988) suggested that studies revealing higher levels of elderly activism were linked to concern with fraud and victimization. Lower levels of activism involved elderly consumers who were unwilling to appear dependent or who did not feel they had control over the cost and quality of medical treatment.

While Tongen's (1988) account appears entirely possible, the present findings suggest another plausible explanation. In particular, it may be that variations in cognitive age, as they are related to the physical health and activity levels of the elderly, serve to reconcile the observed differences in consumer activism among the elderly.





Hence, elderly consumer who perceive themselves to be cognitively younger and were more healthy and socially active may conceivably be less willing and interested to engage in consumer activism relative to those who perceived themselves to be cognitively older. Rahtz, Sirgy, and Meadow (1989), provide tentative empirical support for this contention when they found that individuals who felt younger were less likely to be active participants in the healthcare service domain as those who viewed themselves as older.

Future Research

The findings in this research also imply that future research in elderly consumer behavior should incorporate cognitive, in addition to chronological, measures of age. Such an approach may broaden extant understanding of this important segment as it would allow consumer researchers to draw out the effects due to cognitive age from those due to chronological age. This paper considers a more precise delineation of the conditions under which one or the other age construct possesses greater predictive and explanatory power with regard to important elderly consumer behavior outcomes.

Future research may also focus on determining other antecedents of cognitive age given the encouraging results of the present study. For example, it may be useful to explore in greater depth the relationship between cognitive age and life satisfaction. Several scholars (eg., Aiello et al. 1977; Andres and Withey 1976; Meadow 1988; Neugarten, Havighurst, and Tobin 1961) have posited that life satisfaction may be construed as a composite global satisfaction outcome resulting from the satisfaction derived from various individual domains. With regard to the elderly, such relevant individual domains as healthcare may be explored in connection with cognitive age. Finally, it may also be instructive to establish with greater precision particular antecedents of cognitive age which account for variations in specific elderly consumer behaviors.


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Caroline Chua, National University of Singapore
Joseph A. Cote, Washington State University
Siew Meng Leong, National University of Singapore


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17 | 1990

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