Rethinking Age Stereotypes and Your EPPP Study

Our earlier post on psychology licensing prep for the elderly urged those of us who are elderly to begin to think positively about our age, to treat our age as an asset rather than a liability.

I thought of this again when I came across an article that Judith Graham wrote in the New York Times last year. “All of us have beliefs — many of them subconscious, dating back to childhood — about what it means to get older”, Graham observed. She continued:

Psychologists call these “age stereotypes.” And, it turns out, they can have an important effect on seniors’ health.

When stereotypes are negative — when seniors are convinced becoming old means becoming useless, helpless or devalued — they are less likely to seek preventive medical care and die earlier, and more likely to suffer memory loss and poor physical functioning, a growing body of research shows.

When stereotypes are positive — when older adults view age as a time of wisdom, self-realization and satisfaction — results point in the other direction, toward a higher level of functioning. The latest report, in The Journal of the American Medical Association, suggests that seniors with this positive bias are 44 percent more likely to fully recover from a bout of disability.

For people who care about and interact with older people, the message is clear: your attitude counts because it can activate or potentially modify these deeply held age stereotypes.

The perpetuation of stereotypes happens because of the way cultural assumptions work on the malleability of human the brain. Research shows that environmental factors, including the implicit and subtle assumptions of the society where we were brought up, wire our brains in profound and significant ways. Our brains are ‘primed’ to accept certain things as normal which seem strange to other culture groups.

This includes the seemingly ‘normal’ stereotypes about aging. These stereotypes are often perpetuated by strong commercial powers that have an economic interest in stigmatizing the elderly. Whereas past cultures would honor the elderly for their wisdom, experience, maturity and knowledge, our culture idolizes youth. Just think of the way the Western World has made a multi-million dollar industry out of various products that promise to make us appear young.

The reason this is so subversive is because of the ‘fire-wire’ principle that we have explored in our earlier posts about the brain. Put simply, if the neurons in one part of the brain frequently fire off simultaneously with the neurons in another part of the brain, then both parts of the brain become wired together. Once again: neurons that fire together, wire together.

Now apply this to the issue of aging. If we habitually associate growing older with things like tedium, pettiness, decline, dementia, passivity, etc., then it may become hard to think about old age without also thinking of these negatives. On the other hand, if we associate growing older with positive things like wisdom, maturity, perspective, increase of knowledge, etc., then we can begin to embrace the phenomenon of aging with enthusiasm rather than dread.

Negative aging stereotypes are not inevitable. Research has found that Chinese and deaf Americans are among groups that actually have a positive bias towards aging. I’ll leave you to ponder why that might be, but my point right now is simply that as we age we need not let negative stereotypes define us. This is especially true if you are studying for the EPPP when elderly. If you are fifty, sixty or even seventy and above, it is never too late to study for your psychology licensing prep.

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