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Are negative stereotypes about older people bad for their health?

  • Comments (24)

We’re all accustomed to hearing how memory problems are common – or even inevitable – in older people. And if you’re anything like me, each time you enter a room and forget what you came for you’ll think it’s a “senior moment”, a sign of things to come.

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But perhaps this stereotype is a self-fulfilling prophesy. A study undertaken by researchers at the University of Southern California suggests that negative stereotypes about ageing can actually impair memory. The study found that a group of older people asked to perform memory tests after reading fictitious articles about age-related memory problems did less well than a group given articles on preservation of and improvement in memory with age.

The researchers tested their results by giving participants a range of memory tests, with different positive or negative effects related to performance. Their results consistently showed that concern about being negatively stereotyped impaired memory.

It strikes me that our attitudes to older people may be harming them in more than memory alone. How often do we assume that an older person will find it difficult to perform a task and that it would be better to do it for them? Or do we tell ourselves it will be better for them when we really mean quicker for us?

And when we discuss the fact that the proportion of the population over retirement age is growing as the baby boom generation swells its ranks, it is usually in a negative context. How will we care for all these dependent older people? Who will fund all this care?

Of course old age brings a certain amount of decline in function, but perhaps if we took a more positive view of older people they would retain their physical and mental abilities for longer.  Maybe then we wouldn’t be worrying quite as much about how health and social care services will cope with the “timebomb” of the ageing population, and instead looking at how older people can remain actively engaged in and contributing to society.

  • Comments (24)

Readers' comments (24)

  • michael stone

    'The researchers tested their results by giving participants a range of memory tests, with different positive or negative effects related to performance. Their results consistently showed that concern about being negatively stereotyped impaired memory.'

    I think that sort of result is fairly common - people are influenced by the 'lead in to and structure of ' of tests (for example, including a comparator biases results).

    When I do that 'walking into the room thing' I don't think 'senior moment' I tend to think 'sod it - done it again !' and although I suspect that many older people are more capable than might be assumed, everything should be judged on the reality, case-by-case.

    When I was in my mid 40s, some days I would get up feeling pretty awful, and other days I'd wake up feeling 'great' - on the 'feeling great days' I could sort of delude myself into thinking I would still have been able to hurl myself around a rugby field as I could when I was 20, but if I'd actually tried it, it would probably have nearly killed me !

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  • Anonymous

    I've never heard anyone say they are having a senior moment, I don't think it's inevitable that your memory goes when you get older unless there is documented evidence to prove otherwise.
    Why does everyone keep banging on about how all future elderly people are inevitably going to be frail, decrepit, will need to be in hospital for numerous illnesses and end up in some care-home somewhere against their wishes.

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  • Anonymous

    Anonymous | 9-Jul-2013 12:29 pm

    I agree entirely. stereotyping any human individual is as absurd as it is dangerous and can lead to pre-conceived ideas about others and even self-fulfilling prophecies.

    it is time we rethought our attitudes towards others who may need assistancce and how we care for the elderly.

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  • Anonymous

    Anonymous | 9-Jul-2013 12:29 pm

    "Why does everyone keep banging on about how all future elderly people are inevitably going to be frail, decrepit, will need to be in hospital for numerous illnesses and end up in some care-home somewhere against their wishes."

    Because a lot of them will!! Let's stop being offended by the statement of what is quite likely to happen for many, not all, and concentrate on how to deal with the consequences for all. Dealing with the levels of obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, etc., brought on in large part by poor health choices, would be a good start.

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  • Anonymous

    "Dealing with the levels of obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, etc., brought on in large part by poor health choices, would be a good start."

    try targetting the young first to prevent many of these problems arising in the first place. many of the elderly have more sense and good health habits which is why they are living longer! most are far less self indulgent and always had less money to throw around than the tryounger generations.


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  • Anonymous

    individuals should each be valued and respected for who they are and not judged on what others believe they should be as nobody will ever meet such expectations. care should be focussed on their own needs and not what others decide they must give them.

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  • Anonymous

    Anon 12.49

    "Because a lot of them will!!"

    don't forget many fall foul before they even have the chance to get to elderly!

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  • Anonymous

    Anonymous | 9-Jul-2013 1:29 pm
    from
    Anonymous | 9-Jul-2013 12:49 pm

    One of the points I made was indeed to tackle the disease/illness brought about by a lifetime of poor decision making. It is logical and obvious that this would start with the young. So you are basically agreeing with me there. With regard to many elderly having "...more sense and good health habits.."; that may have been true of the post war generation many of whom had eaten a healthier diet through necessity and rationing, fewer owned cars, (therefore walked and cycled instead) and had fewer reasons and opportunities to develop bad habits. However, the upcoming baby boomers are different and we see more and more the fallout of our modern lifestyles in the elderly. There is a difference between living longer in good health and living longer in ill health. It isn't discriminating against anyone to point out what is factually correct.

    Anonymous | 9-Jul-2013 2:03 pm

    "don't forget many fall foul before they even have the chance to get to elderly!"

    I didn't say they wouldn't. So what's your point?

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  • Anonymous

    old age is a continuation of life and there shouldn't suddenly be an artificial barrier created at a certain age separating them from the rest and discriminating against them and deciding what is best for them. those best placed to advise on their needs are the people belonging to each generation themselves.

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  • Anonymous

    We, and our families, are the elderly of the future who everyone keeps warning us about, let's not forget that. I do not want to have multiple medical problems, do not particularly want to become deaf, if I do I intend to get a proper hearing aid. I do not intend to spend my latter years in and out of hospital and hope I do not go ga-ga.
    I have to make my own financial plans for any care that I may need (hopefully not very much) and have a responsibility to try and keep as active and healthy as I can thank you very much.
    Just because I have worked for the NHS for the past 30 years does not mean I will get any 'benefits' so must start to take responsibility for my own future.

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