How do you imagine yourself beyond your 70th birthday?

Elderly stereotypes are hazardous to our health

Posted Jul 16, 2010

Stereotypes of the elderly are stronger and more negative than we realize, often expressed in subtle and seemingly harmless ways, escaping our notice.

Consider a recent Snickers commercial that depicts octogenarian actress Betty White playing hard-nosed tackle football. Its humor is driven by everyone's expectation that a woman her age could never do this. We know the commercial's meant to be tongue-in-cheek, so where's the harm in that? The problem is that portrayals like this reinforce the underlying assumption that elderly people are frail and helpless (while ironically, portraying Betty White as tough).

Negative stereotypes of the elderly are by no means universal—they depend on how a society views closeness to extended family, dependence on others, and traditional ideals (for example, that being old and wise is something to aspire to). These values are de-emphasized in Western cultures, where elderly people are treated especially badly.

When we become aware of prejudice, we're usually concerned with how it affects the people who are targeted. However, negative stereotypes of the elderly also carry a terrible cost for those who hold the stereotypes, in a way that no other kind of prejudice does. Unlike markers of race, disability, social class, and other stigmas, old age is the only group that everyone will someday belong to (if you're lucky, that is). Hence, young people who have negative perceptions of the elderly will eventually develop negative perceptions of themselves. Negative perceptions of the elderly don't just magically disappear once you become part of the demographic; deeply-held assumptions tend to be persistent.

We also know that when people come to accept the negative stereotypes directed at their own group, this can short circuit their thinking and cause the stereotypes to become self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, imagine someone who's an average math student but believes herself to be very bad at it. Although she has the ability to do well, every time she takes a math exam or is asked to calculate a restaurant tip, she gets anxious and makes mistakes—so that her assumptions about herself wind up getting confirmed. A similar process occurs when elderly people buy into the assumptions they see on birthday cards and in mainstream culture.

Elderly people who hold negative beliefs about aging—such as the belief that mental and physical health inevitably get worse with age; or that things like arthritis, difficulty sleeping, and heart disease are normal aspects of aging—end up performing worse on short-term memory and hearing acuity tests. More alarmingly, long-running studies find that people who hold these beliefs are more likely to suffer heart attacks and strokes, take longer to recover from them, and have a significantly lower life expectancy. These outcomes are not caused by poorer health to begin with, or to personality differences, but instead are directly predicted by positive vs. negative beliefs about aging. (To see how these beliefs are measured, you can find examples here.)

How can these beliefs actually shape our physical and mental health? What are the mechanisms involved?

A big way is through a person's health-maintenance behaviors. People who believe that health can be improved through a better diet, exercise, and getting regular physicals—these are examples of positive aging beliefs—are more likely to maintain these activities and stay healthier in the long run. They're also more likely to discuss health issues with their doctor and to take their prescribed medications. In contrast, people who believe that aging inevitably leads to deteriorating health are less motivated to engage in health-promoting behaviors, believing them to be pointless (and ultimately causing their assumptions about aging to get confirmed.)

Negative self-stereotypes are also harmful because they produce stress. For instance, exposing elderly people to negative age stereotypes—like the jokes you see on birthday cards—triggers physiological stress responses (e.g., increases in heart rate and blood pressure), which damages health over time. When you consider how frequently these stereotypes get transmitted in everyday life, this extra stress is sure to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and other health problems.

Despite their effects on older people, holding these stereotypes doesn't impair the functioning of young people, who don't see them as applying to themselves. In fact, holding these beliefs may actually be empowering to young people—making them feel healthier, more competent, and better off by comparison. This sense of superiority is likely a big reason people cling to these beliefs.

The aversion toward old age is also driven by our fear of it—at the prospect of losing our independence, appearing vulnerable, changes in our appearance, and death. However, spurning old age, while it can be temporarily comforting, ends up being a destructive way to deal with our fears.

A first step to changing our assumptions is to simply be aware of the extreme negativity that gets associated with old age, and learn not to get caught up in it. Even more important, we need to cultivate positive beliefs about aging, since even small reminders of them can make a big difference. For example, when elderly people are briefly shown positive stereotype words—such as accomplished, enlightened, insightful, nurturing, wise—this immediately improves their all-around functioning: producing better memory, reduced stress, greater self-confidence, and more positive perceptions of aging.

These positive perceptions can be sustained in the long run as well. One way is by creating a mental image of what you want to be like in your 70s and 80s, a realistic version of your best possible self. By considering your best future self, "old age" will no longer be this distant event that's seen through the lens of our cultural stereotypes. Instead, envisioning your future self is a great way to clarify which long-term goals are important to you (e.g., good health, good relationships), motivating you to pursue these goals and giving you a sense of control over your future. (Tip: Writing about your best future self is even more effective than just imagining it.)

We're fully capable of improving our perceptions about aging (and thus making them more realistic). Doing so will require active maintenance strategies, though, given all the negativity we're exposed to about it. To continue to passively accept this mentality is dangerous—we need to accept that our beliefs are integral to our health and well-being in later life.

(This post was co-authored by Josh Foster.)