Have you thought about stereotypes regarding older people we see in the media and we ourselves use, and believe? For example, that older people are more helpless, grumpy, sedentary, or less able to keep up with modern culture or technology?
For more than 20 years, psychologist Becca Levy of the Yale University School of Public Health (USA) years has been conducting research on these stereotypes and how they affect the health of the older people themselves. One of the big conclusions she and her colleagues have reached is that people who are getting older but who have “positive” attitudes about getting old—that it can be a time of wisdom, self-satisfaction, and self-realization—live about 7.5 years longer than older individuals who carry “negative” stereotypes of old age.
Various research studies have shown that older people with these more positive attitudes, besides living longer, also do better on memory tests, have better handwriting, walk faster, and are about 44% more likely to recover completely from a major disability, such as a bad accident.
So the stereotypes we carry about old age strongly influence how we ourselves will do as we get older. But these stereotypes are firmly embedded in society and not easy to change. Dr. Levy mentions that even 3 and 4 year-old children carry negative stereotypes of old people. They have already seen on TV plenty of older people who are portrayed as weak and incapable.
These images are such a pervasive part of our environment that by the time we are middle-aged, we might easily be convinced that that becoming old is necessarily a downhill course, but this is not true. Ever more frequently we hear of people in their 80s completing college degrees, going on mountain treks, getting married, staying independent and engaged, and often still enjoying fulfilling sexual lives.
Dr. Levy’s group just published an unusual study which set out to see if they could change the negative stereotypes, and if so, could that change help older individuals function better physically. She gathered a group of 100 older individuals (average age 81) and for the next four weeks they were exposed to short training sessions.
These sessions were very brief, lasting about 15 minutes once a week. One part of the volunteers were asked to write, during the sessions, a short essay about active older people but another part of the volunteers had a more modern intervention using a computer screen. For their 15-minute periods, they were shown videos which flashed subliminal messages across the screen, so quickly that while their brain registered the messages, they could not actually repeat the words that were shown on the screen.
These words were positive ones, such as “fit”, “”creative”, “wise” and “energetic” along with words such as “old” or “mature”. A week following the final session, the researchers tested all the volunteers on how well they could perform challenging physical activities, such as repeatedly and rapidly sitting down then standing up, or trying to hold poses that challenged their balance functions.
They findings were that the adults who were shown the positive words embedded in the videos performed much better than the volunteers who simply wrote out short essays.
While this sort of subliminal training is not yet available commercially, it gives us all much to think about— how we might influence and better the lives of ourselves and our older loved ones, by being aware to replace negative stereotypes with more positive ones.
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