Background. There is considerable dispute about the validity of memory complaints. While some studies find that complaints are an early indicator of dementia or cognitive decline, there are also many studies showing that complaints are more closely associated with negative affect (depression, anxiety and neuroticism). The present paper used three-wave longitudinal data to test three hypotheses: (1) that memory complaints reflect an evaluation of present and past memory performance; (2) that memory complaints predict future memory performance; and (3) that memory complaints predict current and future negative affect.
Methods. A longitudinal study was carried out with a community sample of people aged 70 and over. Participants were assessed for memory complaints, memory performance and negative affect at three waves separated by 3·6 years and 4·0 years. There were 331 persons with data on all relevant variables. The data were analysed using structural equation modelling.
Results. Significant paths in the structural model were found from memory performance to future memory complaints, as well as from memory complaints to future memory performance, supporting hypotheses 1 and 2. Memory complaints were associated with current negative affect, but did not predict future negative affect.
Conclusions. Memory complaints do reflect perceptions of past memory performance and are also an early manifestation of memory impairment. However, current negative affect (anxiety and depression symptoms) shows the greatest association with memory complaints.
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