Look young Feel young! Think young! The constant barrage of information about how being forever young is the only desirable way to live is enough to make even a young person feel old. Now researchers have shown that this ageism is potentially harmful to one's cognitive abilities over the long term.
A study led by Becca R. Levy, PhD of Yale University and her colleagues has shown that our memory is actually shaped by age stereotypes. In other words, if you are ageist in your thinking, adhering to stereotypical images of older people as bumbling, forgetful, annoying people who are going “downhill,” your memory will likely age in accordance with the stereotypes that you carry.
While past research conducted by Levy and her team have focused on how negative self-stereotypes detrimentally affect cognitive performance of certain groups of people, those studies have been short-term experiments.
This new study focused on the long term. The result? Participants in the study who believe negative stereotypes about aging, either about others or themselves, demonstrated significantly worse memory performance over the 38 years studied than those who avoided stereotyping the aged.
According to the Oxford Journal, “This study shows that the adverse influence of negative self-stereotypes on cognitive performance is not limited to a short-term laboratory effect. Rather, the findings demonstrate, for the first time, that stereotypes also predict memory performance over an extended period in the community.”
A telling incident is described in an article on Next Avenue, a news and advice site for people aged 50 and over, titled, "Think Old Age Means Decline? Then It Probably Will." The article tells a story about a pre-trial preparation regarding a catastrophic traffic car accident. During the meeting, one of the group members said:
“Well, Driver A was 68-years-old. Of course it was her fault. Anybody knows that old people can’t see or hear well, and they have lousy reflexes.”
This was said despite the fact that the older driver had perfect vision and no prior accidents and “without regard whatsoever for the police report or factual evidence."
Ageism is not just about driving. It is rampant in hiring processes (illegal or not), and in work places in general. Ageism is also obvious in clothing and product design where companies go after the “younger consumer” when, in reality, there are millions of aging people ready and able to buy suitable products -- and I don’t mean diapers.
They want clothing that is stylish yet has some dignity. They want technology. They want vehicles. They want to see a decent movie that has more substance than cars being blown up by spaceships. And, yes, a huge percentage of these people have money to spend, yet they often don’t spend it because of ageist designers and marketers.
These same designers and marketers could help more than their bottom lines if they worked on a major attitude change. They could help themselves age better.
What can younger people do to age more positively and perhaps even protect their body and mind?
- They can notice the millions of older people who are still working hard at demanding jobs -- and succeeding.
They can notice the people who are filling the bulk of volunteer positions in their communities. Seniors participate in environmental projects, mentor and tutor children, deliver Meals on Wheels, become hospice volunteers and so much more.
They can look at history. It’s no secret that in forgetting the mistakes of the past is a surefire way to repeat them.
They can become more aware that, if they are fortunate, they too will one day become an elder. Living in denial will not stop their body from aging.
They can get to know older people as friends, treating them as a source of information. They can ask them about their mistakes as well as their glorious moments. They can ask them what they’d have done differently as well as what they’d never change. Younger people can learn from older people if they chose to look with new eyes at the examples before them.
Younger people can ask themselves how they would like to age. If an attitude change toward aging stereotypes can help them age better, an attitude change seems wise. That attitude change can be the springboard toward lifestyle changes such as eating well, exercising, using their brains in challenging ways and nurturing their creative and spiritual selves through meditation, for example, to improve their chances of avoiding diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.
No, you can’t control everything about how you'll age. Genetic makeup and situational and environmental challenges will also affect the process. However, there are things that are under your control. Overcoming an ageist attitude would be step one -- and it may even work to preserve your memory.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver having spent over two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a longtime newspaper columnist and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” as well as a contributor to several additional books on caregiving and dementia. Her websites can be accessed at www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter@mindingourelder_ and on Facebook _Minding Our Elders.