Study: Positive stereotypes about aging improve physical functioning in older adults

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Researchers from Yale University found that exposure to positive age stereotypes could weaken negative age stereotypes and their effects over time, and lead to healthier outcomes. This strengthens their positive self-perceptions, which then improved their physical function.

“The challenge we had in this study was to enable the participants to overcome the negative age stereotypes which they acquire from society, as in everyday conversations and television comedies,” Becca Levy, lead researcher of the study and associate professor and director of the Social and Behavioral Science Division, said in a statement. “The study’s successful outcome suggests the potential of directing subliminal processes toward the enhancement of physical function.”

For the study, researchers collected data from 100 older adults who live in the greater New Haven, Connecticut area. Some of the participants were subjected to positive age stereotypes on a computer screen that flashed words such as “spry” and “creative” at speeds that were too fast to allow for conscious awareness.

Researchers found that individuals exposed to the positive messaging exhibited a range of psychological and physical improvements that were not found in control subjects. They benefited from improved physical function, such as physical balance, which continued for three weeks after the intervention ended.

 Also, during the same period, positive age stereotypes and positive self-perceptions of aging were strengthened, and negative age stereotypes and negative self-perceptions of aging were weakened.

While it has been previously shown by Levy that negative age stereotypes can weaken an older individual’s physical functioning, this is the first time that subliminal activation of positive age stereotypes was found to improve outcomes over time.

The findings will be published in the journal Psychological Science.

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