Stereotypes that view older adults as cognitively or physically impaired, may affect how they perform on a variety of tasks, according to a new study.
Stigmatized groups—whether due to race, socioeconomic status, or age—perform more poorly when faced with negative stereotypes, says Sarah Barber, a psychology and gerontology researcher at Georgia State University. She found expectations of others can play a powerful role in how well older adults perform on cognitive tasks and motor skills such as driving.
The phenomenon is known as “stereotype threat,” Barber says. The new paper, published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, looks at recent studies as well as those dating back to the mid 1990s, all of which show the power of this phenomenon.
“The concept was originally formulated to look at stereotypes around race,” Barber says, but the effect turned out to be much broader. It can affect older adults and affect their memory, physical performance, driving abilities, and even job satisfaction.
Older adults frequently encounter the challenge of stereotype threat at their physician’s office, where they routinely go for checkups, Barber says, and where they may take part in cognitive tests as well.
“People worry that there is truth to the negatives. When they forget, they may worry they are on a slippery slope towards dementia and decline.”
Research shows about 17% of individuals aged 50 and older experience stereotype threat at the doctors office, and about 8% worry their physician is negatively evaluating them because of their age.
This can lead older people to underperform on the cognitive tests and to greater distrust of physicians, greater dissatisfaction with healthcare services, poorer self-reported mental and physical health, and even higher rates of hypertension.
Just as important in stereotypes about age, Barber says, is negative self-evaluation, which she reviewed in a 2017 paper.
“People worry that there is truth to the negatives,” she says. “When they forget, they may worry they are on a slippery slope towards dementia and decline.”
That can be detrimental and actually lead to more forgetting. “I was struck by the negative things older adults would say about themselves, and I’d wonder how much better they might be performing if they weren’t so worried,” Barber says.
These stereotype threat effects can also affect physical performance. “Older adults are often stereotyped as being slow, weak, feeble, and frail,” Barber says.
Lab studies show that stereotype threat can also lead to slower walking and weaker grip strength for older adults.
“We need to make people feel confident in their own abilities,” she says, “and feel that they will be respected no matter how they perform.”
Older adults would also benefit from looking at their own attitudes about aging, Barber says.
“Your own attitude about aging is highly predictive of your aging outcomes. “Those who have positive attitudes about aging live longer, have better memory function, and recover more easily from illnesses.”
Source: Georgia State