Background: The recognition of facial expressions is an important component of emotion processing which contributes to interactional behavior. One of the factors highly associated with potential decline of ability in behavioral tasks is age.
Methods: We have investigated age-related changes in facial identity and expression memory of healthy subjects in three age groups: young adults (20–40 years), elderly adults (60–80 years) and, for the first time in the literature, very old adults (over 80 years of age). Using a picture test, photographs of faces with happy or angry expressions were presented to study participants during the encoding task, and the memory for identity and emotional facial expression was investigated in a subsequent recognition task showing emotionally neutral faces. Half of the faces presented in the recognition task were initially shown in the encoding task.
Results: Age interacted with the memory process: the ability to recognize both facial identity and emotional expression declined with advanced age. Happy facial expressions were better recognized in all age groups. Although there was a continuous overall decrease in recognition of both happy and angry expressions with advanced age, the effect favoring happy facial expressions was stable also in very old adults. Other factors such as gender or educational level did not affect the memory process for facial expressions.
Conclusions: Our findings suggest that age is a significant determinant of memory for facial identity and emotional expression, and that, similar to younger adults, the recognition process of the elderly favors happy emotional facial expressions.