Acute Psychosocial Stress Impairs Intention Initiation in Young but not Older Adults

Katharina Schnitzspahn* (Corresponding Author), Franziska Plessow, Clemens Kirschbaum, Yu Ho Wong, Matthias Kliegel

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
3 Downloads (Pure)


Acute psychosocial stress has been shown to impair memory and cognitive control in young adults. So far, only very little empirical research is available concerning possible adult age differences in acute stress effects on cognition in general and cognitive control in particular. Accordingly, the present study set out to test these effects in a controlled laboratory setting comparing performance in a prospective memory task requiring the deployment of proactive cognitive control to successfully implement intentions. Sixty-six young (19-34 years) and 57 older adults (60-82 years) were either exposed to an established psychosocial stress procedure (Trier Social Stress Test) or an active control condition. Stress responses were measured on a fine-grained level across the entire procedure using subjective and physiological stress markers. Results suggest that the stress induction was equally successful in both age groups. While stress impaired prospective memory ability in young adults, it did not affect performance in the older adults. In particular, young adults under acute stress were more likely to completely fail the initiation of the prospective memory task resulting in zero performance. The missing stress effect on prospective memory in older adults is in line with previous studies examining broader mood effects on PM and suggests the exciting possibility that increasing age may act as a resilience factor against deterioration of cognitive control in emotionally challenging situations.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105593
Number of pages9
Early online date22 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2022

Bibliographical note

We thank Florence Caccia, Marta Guidotti, Nikol Hiller, Nada Kojovic, Raphaëlle Martin-Casas and Clémence Voirin for assistance with data collection, Robert Miller for advice concerning the data analyses and Antje Petzold, Jana Strahler and Moritz Walser for their advice regarding study and manuscript preparation. Preparation of this manuscript was funded by a grant from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) to MK and CK.


  • prospective memory
  • cognitive control
  • stress
  • Trier Social Stress Test
  • aging


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