Ever had a ‘senior moment’, forgotten something and shared this experience with a colleague, family or friends? Well you could have inadvertently contributed to the negative stereotype of ageing.

No harm done I hear you say, it is all in fun. Well I hate to be a party pooper it seems that such asides and throw away comments, and certainly the stereotyping that underpin them, may do some damage.

The USC Davis School of Gerontology has recently uncovered the negative effect of such idle banter as it contributes to ageist attitudes and stereotypes. They refer to the impact of a “stereotype threat” on the memory skills of older people.

The argument goes that if you identify with the target group, in this case seniors, and you come across a negative image or stereotype of that group you handicap yourself and/or underperform. In effect such views become self fulfilling prophecies as you self limit your potential.

I should be clear this is not just a view but a finding from their recent research soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science. Here is what one of the lead authors had to say

“Older adults should be careful not to buy into negative stereotypes about aging — attributing every forgetful moment to getting older can actually worsen memory problems.” said Sarah Barber, a postdoctoral researcher at the USC Davis School.

It is not all bad news however, it seems if we think there is gain in not making mistakes we will positively work against the stereotype.

“Stereotype threat is generally thought to be a bad thing, and it is well established that it can impair older adults’ memory performance. However, our experiments demonstrate that stereotype threat can actually enhance older adults’ memory if the task involves avoiding losses,” Barber said.

So what is the takeaway from this research for the vast majority of us
– Be aware of your attitude and reflect on the message you are sending

And in particular if we work as a health professional with seniors
– Consider your approach when discussing health and memory issues with seniors
– When testing seniors for memory problems reinforce the importance of not making mistakes

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