Attributing forgetfulness to a "senior moment" can actually worsen memory problems in seniors, simply through the power of suggestion, new research shows.
The findings, by researchers with the University of Southern California-Davis, are among the first to show that the negative stereotype that older people are prone to forgetfulness and senility may actually exacerbate memory loss.
The results highlight how crucial it is for older adults, as well clinicians, to be aware of how ageist beliefs about older adults can affect their real memory test performance.
"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 who led the study, accepted for publication in the journal Psychological Science.
Barber said the findings confirm past research on "stereotype threats" — where people confronted with negative stereotypes about a group with which they identify tend to self-handicap and underperform, inadvertently confirming the negative stereotype.
Barber and colleagues conducted two experiments in which adults, aged 59 to 79, completed a memory test. Some participants were first asked to read fake news articles about memory loss in older adults, and others did not. About half of the participants were offered a monetary reward for each word they remembered; the other half lost money for each word they forgot.
Participants who earned a monetary reward for remembering words scored poorer on memory tests. But when the test was framed in terms of preventing losses due to forgetting, the results flipped: participants reminded of the stereotypes about aging and memory loss actually scored better than those who were under no stereotype threat.
"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.
Older adults, it seems, respond to stereotype threat by changing their motivational priorities and focusing more on avoiding mistakes.
"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," Barber said.
The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health
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