2012. Vol.3, No.1, 62-64
Published Online January 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
The Relationship of Cognitive Impairment to Hypnotic
Susceptibility in a Sample of Elderly: A Pilot Study
James R. Hall1,2*, Melissa Pennington1, Erica Swicegood1, A. Scott Winter1
1Department of Psychiatry, University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, Fort Worth, USA
2Institute of Aging and Alzheimer’s Disease Research, University of North Texas Health Science
Center at Fort Worth, Fort Worth, USA
Email: *
Received October 6th, 2011; revised November 14th, 2011; accepted December 15th, 2011
The relationship between cognitive impairment and hypnotic susceptibility in elderly individuals was in-
vestigated. The Stanford Hypnotic Suggestibility Scale (SHSS; Form C Modified) was administered to 30
volunteers between the ages of 65 - 87 who had been evaluated for cognitive impairment. The sample
consisted of 14 normal controls, 8 subjects with mild Alzheimer’s disease, and 8 subjects with mild cog-
nitive impairment. No significant differences between groups were found on performance on the SHSS.
Results suggest that that hypnosis may be a useful adjunct to enhance the effectiveness of therapeutic in-
terventions for elderly patients with mild dementia.
Keywords: Hypnotic Suggestibility; Normal Aging; Alzheimer’s Disease; Mild Cognitive Impairment
As the population ages and requires higher levels of medical
care including surgery and invasive procedures, there is an
increased need for adjunctive approaches that don’t have the
negative side-effects of many medications, analgesics, and
anesthesia. Hypnosis is a viable non-pharmacological interven-
tion with few if any negative side effects. Although there have
been a few controlled trials studying hypnosis with the elderly,
there is evidence supporting the utility of hypnosis with older
adults for a number of medical conditions and treatments.
Beneficial effects for the use of hypnosis with older adults have
been reported for the control of chronic pain (Morone & Greco,
2007), the control of osteoarthritis pain (Gay, Philippot, & Lu-
minet, 2002), the treatment of obesity (Cherniack, 2008), the
use during invasive medical procedures (Lutgendorf, et al.,
2007), and as an adjunct during colonoscopy (Elkins, et al.,
A number of issues have been raised regarding the use of
hypnosis with the elderly. It has been argued that older adults
are not as capable of being hypnotized as younger people
(Luskin, et al., 2000). The effectiveness of hypnosis has been
related to the hypnotizability of the subject (Hilgard, 1965;
Braffman & Kirsch, 1999; Montgomery, DuHamel, & Redd,
2000; Milling, Coursen, Shores, & Waszkiewicz, 2010). Re-
search on age and hypnotizability has suggested that hypnotic
susceptibility is a trait that does not vary significantly as indi-
viduals age (Piccone, Hilgard, & Zimbardo, 1989). Page and
Green (2007) found that hypnotic suggestibility scores decrease
from age 17 - 40 and then tend to increase and stabilize as a
person ages. Lutgendorf, et al. found that increasing age did not
affect hypnotizability nor diminish the utility of hypnosis dur-
ing invasive medical procedures. Taken together these findings
indicate that aging is not a significant determinant of hypno-
In addition to the concern with age as a factor in hypnotiza-
bility there are questions about the use of hypnosis with elderly
who have cognitive impairment. The hypnotic process has been
described as “attentive receptive concentration” (Spiegel &
Spiegel, 1987) that requires intact cognitive functioning. Recent
neurophysiological evidence supports the importance of atten-
tional mechanisms in hypnotizability (Raz, Fan, & Posner,
2006). The anterior cingulate and right frontal and parietal areas
(Faymonville, Boly, & Laureys, 2006) are areas posited to be
involved in the attentional network. Dementia, especially Alz-
heimer’s disease (AD), is marked by deficits in the functioning
of these areas. This raises questions about the utility of hypno-
sis in seniors who may have neurocognitive deficits. Another
type of cognitive impairment found in the elderly, Mild Cogni-
tive Impairment (MCI), is well-established as a precursor to
dementia (Petersen, 2004) and is seen as a neuropathological
progression between normal aging and patients with Alz-
heimer’s disease (AD) (Braak & Braak, 1995). A recent study
(Redel, et al., 2010) found that selective attention, which was
related to fronto-parietal networks, was significantly reduced in
MCI patients and further impaired in AD. This neurophysi-
ological evidence suggests that individuals with even mild cog-
nitive deficits may have impaired attentional processes that may
limit their ability to be hypnotized.
To our knowledge, no studies have looked specifically at the
relationship between the level of cognitive functioning and
hypnotic susceptibility in the elderly. The present study inves-
tigates hypnotic susceptibility in individuals with mild Alz-
heimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment and cognitively
normal elderly. Understanding these associations may have an
impact on the clinical use of hypnosis with elderly individuals
with cognitive impairment.
Setting: The study was conducted at a large urban health sci-
*Corresponding author.
ence center. The sample for the study was drawn from indi-
viduals who had attended a university based geriatric medicine
clinic and had been assessed as having either normal cognition,
mild cognitive impairment, or mild dementia by consensus
diagnosis. This evaluation was based on clinical diagnoses and
neurocognitive testing. Individuals scoring within the normal
range on a standard battery of neuropsychological tests includ-
ing tests of memory (WMS-III) and executive functions (Clock
Drawing and Trail Making Tests A & B) were classified as
normal. Individuals were diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Im-
pairment (MCI) if they scored within the impaired range (1.5 sd
below norms for age and education) on at least one neurocogni-
tive test of the standard battery and had subjective reports of
cognitive change without the presence of significant impair-
ment in everyday functioning. Individuals were diagnosed with
dementia if they met DSM-IV criteria for dementia. The final
pool of possible participants was composed of 120 individuals
who had attended the clinic within the past 12 months and had
been diagnosed as cognitively intact, MCI or having dementia
and had a Clinical Dementia Rating (CDR) global score of 0, .5
or 1.0 (Morris, 1997). The CDR is a global assessment instru-
ment that yields a score between 0 and 3 that is regularly used
in clinical and research settings to stage dementia severity
(Morris, 1997).These individuals (58 normal; 20 MCI and 42
with a dementia diagnosis) were contacted by a member of the
research team and asked if they were interested in participating
in research on hypnosis. The nature of the study was com-
pletely explained to each person and those agreeing to partici-
pate were consented and seen in the geriatric psychiatry clinic.
Participants: The final sample consisted of 30 individuals: 14
normal controls (NC), 8 with mild cognitive impairment (MCI),
and 8 with mild dementia. The NC group was composed of 14
volunteers without a history of cognitive impairment and who
had been clinically assessed as cognitively intact during the
past year. To determine if change in cognitive functioning had
occurred in the Normal Controls since the initial evaluation, the
Mini-Mental Status Exam (MMSE) (Folstein, Folstein,
McHugh, & Fanjiang, 2001) was administered at the time of
their appointment. The MMSE is one of the most widely used
brief screening instruments of general cognitive functioning
and provides a total score. Those scoring within normal range
for age and education were assigned to the Normal Control
group. The MCI group consisted of 8 individuals diagnosed
with Mild Cognitive Impairment and had a CDR score of 0.5.
The Mild Dementia group consisted of 7 individuals diagnosed
with Alzheimer’s disease and one diagnosed with a mixed Alz-
heimer’s and Vascular Dementia who had a global CDR score
of 1.0.
Procedures: All individuals who consented to participate
were seen in single individual appointments lasting between 60
and 90 minutes. Participants were administered the Stanford
Hypnotic Suggestibility Scale (SHSS Form C Modifed). The
hypnotic suggestions included in the study (see Table 1.) were
those that have been shown to be non-duplicative and excluded
the mosquito hallucination and the anosmia hallucination (Nar-
ing, Hoogduin, & Keijser, 2004). Standard procedures were
followed although all items were administered to every subject.
The SHSS-C was administered by two senior psychiatry resi-
dents (authors M.P & E.S.) who had received extensive training
in hypnosis and the administration of the scale. The study was
approved by the Institutional Review Committee and all par-
ticipants provided written informed consent. Patients in the
Table 1.
Hypnotic suggestions.
Hand lowering Age regression
Moving hands apart Arm immobilization
Taste hallucination Auditory hallucination
Arm Rigidity Negative visual hallucination
Dream Posthypnotic amnesia
Mild Cognitive Impairment and Mild Dementia group were
determined from interview and neuropsychological testing to
have the capacity to understand the written information in the
consent form and to have the capacity to give informed consent.
Analysis: Chi-Square was used to assess differences on cate-
gorical data and ANOVA were conducted to determine differ-
ences between the groups on continuous variables. Level of
significance was set at p .05 for all analyses.
There were 11 males and 19 females in our sample with a
mean age of 74.30 years and an average of 13.93 years of edu-
cation. Due to the small sample size the power of the study was
low and the likelihood of making a Type II error was increased.
The characteristics of the sample and score on the Stanford
Hypnotic Suggestibility Scale are presented in Table 2. The
groups did not differ on gender (Chi-square (df = 1) = 2.133, p
= .144); age (F = .972, 2.27), p = .391) or education (F = .462,
(df 2.27) p = .635). ANOVA revealed no significant differences
between the diagnostic groups on total score (F = 1.642 (df
2/27) p = .212).
The current study found that there were no significant dif-
ferences on hypnotic susceptibility as measured by the Stanford
Hypnotic Suggestibility Scale between normal elderly, elderly
with Mild Cognitive Impairment or elderly with Mild Dementia.
While other studies have evaluated the link between aging and
hypnotic susceptibility, this is the first study to separate par-
ticipants by level of cognitive functioning. The results of the
current need to be interpreted with caution due to the small
sample size which increases the likelihood of making a Type II
error. With this caveat the results of the current study can be
seen as offering initial support for hypnosis as a useful adjunct
to enhance the effectiveness of therapeutic interventions for
elderly patients with mild dementia. If further research supports
the use of hypnosis with this population then hypnosis has the
potential for treating a number of disorders without the risks
related to medication use in the geriatric population.
Our findings suggest that at least in our sample, individuals
with relatively mild cognitive impairment (MCI and mild AD)
retain adequate attentional processing ability to allow the ap-
plication of hypnosis. The SHSS has no norms specifically for
the elderly or elderly with cognitive impairments. Without
comparative norms it is difficult to evaluate the relationship
between the scores on SHSS and expected response to hypnosis
in this population. Exploratory post hoc analysis of the items
found that suggestions for auditory and visual hallucinations
were unsuccessful across all grndicate that oups. This may i
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 63
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
Table 2.
Mean and standard deviation of age, education, and stanford hypnotic suggestibility scale—Form C (SHSS-C) total score.
Mean (SD) Normal Controls N = 14 Mild Cognitive Impairment N = 8 Mild Dementia N = 8
Age 74.21 (6.55) 72.00 (7.13) 76.75 (6.99)
Education 14.21 (1.97) 14.00 (2.20) 13.93 (1.77)
SHSS C Total Score 4.53 (1.90) 3.81 (3.55) 5.30 (1.58)
response to these suggestions is rare in older individuals and
that they these items may have little value in assessing suscep-
tibility in the elderly. There are a number of limitations that
impact the generalizability of our findings. Most notable is the
small size and homogeneity of our sample. All the patients
were Caucasian and attended the same clinic. The sample was
middle class and relatively well educated. Five of the partici-
pants were referred by psychiatrists, and as such carried diag-
noses such as Major Depressive Disorder or Generalized Anxi-
ety Disorder, which could arguably affect attention and concen-
tration and thus could skew results although there were no dif-
ferences between these participants and others on total score.
This pilot study opens the door for future studies involving a
larger sample size of patients with different ethnic origins,
educational backgrounds, and absence of psychiatric diagnoses.
The current research can not speak to the specific uses of hyp-
nosis with the mildly impaired elderly but the findings suggest
that hypnosis may be a useful tool even with elderly who have
been diagnosed with mild levels of cognitive impairment.
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