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Their comparative work has revealed other differences. Older adults in both the United States and China

with them,” she says, “yet they were surprisingly similar to older adults born in the United States.”

clearly demonstrated the positivity effect in the types

Chung became interested in memory while studying

of memories they recalled, but their shared positivity

cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, where

didn’t extend to their attitudes about aging. When asked

her thesis advisor was Professor Lynn Hasher. Hasher

to give five words or phrases to describe the changes

developed the Inhibition Deficit Theory, which proposes

that take place as we age, American adults used negative

that as we age we aren’t as good at regulating which

terms. Chinese older adults used more positive words

information enters our working memory, making us

like “wisdom” and “helping others.” Not only was their

more distractable. Chung’s interest in aging and mem-

outlook on aging significantly rosier, they also recalled

ory was also spurred by her own grandfather’s struggle

less negative information.

with memory loss. “My grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s dis-

“My grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I wanted to learn more about cognitive aging so that I could understand the reasons for his sufferings. I was also determined to examine the cross-cultural effects of aging.”

ease and spent the last few years of his life in a nursing home in Hong Kong,” Chung says. “I wanted to learn more about cognitive aging so that I could understand the reasons for his sufferings. Due to some of his experiences, I was also determined to someday examine the cross-cultural effects of aging.” She completed her graduate work at Claremont Graduate University and post-doctoral research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now teaches courses in the fundamentals of psychology, statistics, and cognitive psychology at Mills. She is also a frequent speaker at College and alumnae events and has presented her research at conferences of the American Psychological Association, the International Neuropsychological Society, and others. For all of the nuanced ways that older people struggle to keep their brain capacity strong and robust, there

“This shows that cultural differences do make a differ-

are also some real physiological benefits to a few more

ence in cognitive processing of information,” Chung says.

candles on the birthday cake, Chung adds. As the brain

Interestingly, her work also found that Chinese-

ages, it shrinks—but not uniformly. The hippocampus, a

American immigrant elders have a negative view of

part of the brain that is involved in forming and storing

aging, reflecting western culture, even if they live exclu-

memory, doesn’t shrink much. Neither does the amyg-

sively with other Chinese-American immigrants.

dala, which processes emotion.

The attitudes of a person’s current geographical loca-

“Older adults can remember bigger vocabularies than

tion, Chung says, is a much bigger factor in determining

younger people. Our semantic memory increases as we

a person’s attitude about growing old than researchers

grow older,” Chung says. “Our memory function does

expected. “You would expect that immigrants who have

change, but those changes may not be as big as people

just come here from China would bring their attitudes

used to think.” ◆

Summer 2012

21


Mills Quarterly summer 2012