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Negative stereotypes about older adults can have wide-ranging consequences. In medical settings, for example, stereotypes about cognitive decline might lead providers to withhold medical explanations or make decisions for patients without their input.
Compounding the effects of age discrimination, stereotypes can also do damage by impacting older adults’ own self-perceptions, making them more likely to see themselves as useless or in decline, which can in turn impact their health. In a review of research on this topic, researchers describe three reasons why this happens.
1. Expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Expectations are surprisingly powerful. One experiment found that when older adults were exposed to subtle reminders of negative age-related stereotypes (such as being senile or frail), compared to positive ones (like being wise or spry), they expected to perform worse on cognitive and physical tasks assessing memory and balance. When the researchers measured actual performance on the tasks, they found that it reflected those expectations, with the group exposed to negative stereotypes performing worse—even though there was no objective difference in ability between the two groups.
These results don’t suggest that cognitive and physical function is all in our heads, though. No matter how positive our expectations, some obstacles are immovable, and accepting limitations can be a source of strength and resilience. Rather, what these findings reveal is that negative expectations may limit our ability to perform at our full potential. And when negative stereotypes are ever-present in news stories, casual conversations, and medical interactions, it can be difficult to avoid their influence.
2. When decline seems inevitable, health behavior change may feel futile.
Stereotypes that portray older adults as being in a state of functional decline may lead them to feel that adopting new healthy habits is pointless, another study found, as they may believe that decline will occur no matter what. In contrast to this perspective, research suggests that health behavior change—from increased physical activity to healthy eating to sleep hygiene—is beneficial at any age. Those with a more optimistic view of aging were found to be more likely to adopt health-promoting behaviors and proactively address problems when they arose (such as arthritis pain, hearing loss, or sleeplessness), rather than resigning themselves to them.
But improving health behaviors is not simply a matter of trying to increase optimism. There are often rational reasons why people do not feel optimistic or efficacious about their health, including negative past experiences, lack of an adequate support system, or limited financial resources. Promoting health behaviors therefore also requires addressing broader life circumstances—not just psychological factors.
3. Exposure to negative stereotypes can increase physiological stress.
A third way that internalized stereotypes can have physical manifestations is through the body’s response to stress. One study found that when older adults were exposed to reminders of negative stereotypes, compared to positive ones, they showed heightened cardiovascular stress responses, such as elevated blood pressure.
Exposure to stereotyping and discrimination can become a form of chronic stress, which can damage health through its effects on inflammation and other biological processes. A recent longitudinal study found that among a group of people with a genetic risk factor for dementia, those who held more positive beliefs about aging—rather than taking negative stereotypes to heart—were nearly 50% less likely to go on to develop dementia. The researchers speculated that positive beliefs might improve people’s ability to cope with aging-related stress, but the specific mechanism is unknown.
Are positive beliefs the solution?
Countering negative stereotypes, in oneself and others, is a complex process. Replacing negative beliefs with positive ones may help, as the studies discussed above suggest, but the nature of these beliefs matters. Seemingly positive stereotypes that infantilize the elderly (such as the “sweet old lady” stereotype) can still have negative effects. So too can stereotypes that create impossibly high standards—an expectation that aging should be easier than it is could lead people to push themselves to the point of injury or blame themselves for not living up to an unrealistic ideal.
Like young adults, older adults are a heterogeneous group with diverse experiences. Reducing any group to a narrow set of characteristics—positive or negative—fails to recognize their full humanity.