Negative age stereotypes in regard to aging has been a heavily researched topic in the health professions, and the conclusions are profound. Study after study has shown that accepting negative expectations in regard to aging presents a direct threat to the cognition, physical well-being, and resiliency to illness in older adults. What is interesting is that these negative stereotypes and expectations are often implicit, unnoticeable, and without malintent. A 2009 study showed that the majority of people over the age of 75 said that they have not experienced or noticed negative age stereotypes, and those that said that they had experienced negative stereotypes tended to not be bothered by them. Essentially, the way older people are perceived, and how they perceive themselves can either accelerate physical decline or instead work to prolong high levels function and quality of life.
Examples of negative age based stereotypes include, but are not limited to:
● Attributing pain or loss of function to age “older adults who were asked to cite the reasons for their physical disabilities,
those who cited “old age” as the primary reason had significantly higher levels of arthritis, heart disease and hearing loss compared to those not attributing their disability to old age” (Williamson & Fried).
● Forgetting something and attributing it to a “senior moment”. Memory loss is commonly thought of as a natural part of aging. If this were the case, there would likely be comparable levels of memory decline across cultures. However, this does not appear to be accurate when studied. Instead memory loss and retention could be related to cultural differences in how society treats its elders (Levy, 2009).
● Saying or thinking “I’m too old to do…..” people who had more positive ideas about their mental and physical health when they got older actually lived longer than those who believed the negative stereotypes about the mental and physical decline that accompanies old age.
● Being instructed not to do something exclusively due to age (ie. travel, exercise) Lowers levels of self efficacy and leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy
What it comes down to is the concept of a “locus of control”. Things that are within your control are those that you can directly influence. Anything that you cannot influence should be outside of your focus. Therefore, Focus on what you can control. Those with larger locus of control beliefs are more likely to adopt preventative behaviors, seek medical care, and disbelieve negative stereotypes about the inevitability of age-related health declines.
It has been shown that rejecting negative age stereotypes and instead seeing aging as a time of continued growth, positivity, socializing, and activity tend to show significantly better mental and physical health outcomes compared to those who view aging with greater pessimism. The takeaway message here is to continue doing and/or working towards the things that you enjoy the most. Don’t let societal pressures stop you from pursuing what makes you happy, because after all- age is just a number.