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Smashing Stereotypes with Aging

By Arnold
August 31, 2020

You’ve definitely heard it before—your memory gets worse as you age. With every year you get older, it feels like you go further and further down a path of irreversible oblivion, like Alice falling down a rabbit hole of foggy forgetfulness. But how much of that is truth, and how much is illusion?

In fact, you may be more in control of your memory than you think. Though the biology of the aging brain certainly affects the memory retention of older adults, new research suggests that the issue may not be so straightforward. A major component of diminished memory performance in older people has nothing to do with the brain itself—it has to do with stereotypes.

 

How Ageism Affects You

Think about it—how often have you been exposed to the idea that older people are forgetful? Modern culture has long embraced tropes of an elderly woman haplessly misplacing her glasses or of an older gentleman constantly mixing up the names of his grandkids. In fact, the stereotype of the “Scatterbrained Senior” has been milked by the media to such an extent that it now has its own listing on TV Tropes. Though these stereotypes are not intentionally malicious, they have a significant subliminal impact on our relationship with aging.

Unfortunately, such stereotypes are a self-fulfilling prophecy. A group of researchers at the USC Davis School of Gerontology separated older adults into 2 groups before asking them to complete a memory task. One group received negative information about aging, reinforcing the traditional belief that age takes a significant toll on memory. The other did not receive such information. At the end, the group that was primed with negative information performed much worse on a recall task than the group that was not exposed to negative stereotypes. 

 

The Fatal Threat of Stereotype

These results make sense if we put them in the greater context of stereotype threat. This process has long been proven to have a detrimental effect on groups like racial minorities, women, and people from low socioeconomic backgrounds. For example, young girls, when told before a test that they are naturally worse at math than boys, will proceed to score significantly lower than girls who were not told this information. The negative stereotypes that members of these groups are exposed to actually inhibit performance, inducing performance anxiety and lowering self-confidence.

Furthermore, the effect of internalized negative stereotypes influences more than cognitive health. Shockingly, older people with more positive self-perceptions of aging lived, on average, 7.5 years longer than their counterparts with less positive self-perceptions. Such statistics illustrate the importance of maintaining a positive self-image—no matter what period of life you’re in. Not only will you feel better, but you will literally add years to your life.

 

Fighting Stereotypes- Using Prompts to Remember

So how can you combat these stereotypes about aging? A good start is to surround yourself with an environment that is age-positive and supportive of your goals. You should then think confidently about your ability to remember what’s important to you. Remember—your age will not hold you back. Reminding yourself of your capabilities and pushing the limits of your memory may open up new frontiers for what you can recall. 

One way to positively encourage yourself to remember is to answer questions that address specific experiences from your past. Prompts induce a reflex known as “instinctive elaboration,” meaning that the brain focuses all of its power on coming up with an answer. So, by answering a specific prompt, like one of those found on MyStoriesMatter, you harness all of your brain’s energy—and that’s a powerful resource. 

What was the name of your prom date, and why did you go to prom with them? What was your earliest memory of your grandparents? What was your favorite family recipe? The answers to these questions are inside your brain—and we believe you can find them. If you consistently tell yourself that you can remember, it is likely you will. 

So, does this mean your “forgetfulness” can be cured? Eliminating negative stereotypes is not an end-all solution to age-related memory problems, but implementing a positive mentality about aging can definitely make a difference. After all, as you age, you only accumulate more wisdom, more life experiences, and more special memories. What could be bad about that?

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