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Stereotypes of aging could have negative effects on senior health

July 1, 2013

The most recent group of retirees has helped reshape some common notions of senior living. They tend to be more physically active and socially engaged and may have worked well past the traditional retirement age. But one stereotype they can't seem to shake is that "senior moments," or bouts of forgetfulness, are a natural part of growing older. This misconception can not only be irksome, but according to new research from the USC Davis School of Gerontology, it could potentially cause health issues. 

Published in the journal Psychological Science, the study focused primarily on the idea of stereotype threat, which means that people who are part of a group may underperform against their potential or fall in line with negative stereotypes, regardless of their actual ability. Researchers found that study participants who read negative stories about seniors' memory before taking tests tended to perform worse than those who did not. However, when offered an incentive to perform well - in this case money - they fared better.

"Our experiments suggest an easy intervention to eliminate the negative effects of stereotype threat on older adults - clinicians should simply change the test instructions to emphasize the importance of not making mistakes," lead author Sarah Barber said. 

In addition to rethinking how the senior population addresses memory, there are other ways for older adults to improve their cognitive function. In fact, experts say that increasing aerobic activity is tied to improving memory. A 2011 study performed by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that older adults who participated in exercise training programs increased the size of their hippocampus, the area of the brain most closely associated with memory.