For years, I have been speaking and writing about the negative impact of aging stereotypes and the damage they can do if they become self-fulfilling prophecies. In other words, if you believe old people all lose their memories, become less productive and dependent, you increase the probability that will be your future.
The good news is that recent research has finally documented that positive stereotype reinforcement may be just as powerful as negative stereotypes. In a study published in the May 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Indiana University psychologists found that
Women's performance on math tests did not suffer as researchers had expected, even when the typical "women are bad at math" stereotype was invoked, as long as a positive stereotype (say, college students are good at math) was presented at the same time. In this case, that means that the aged are likely to have better-functioning memories when they are told, for instance, that older people "have more experience" or "have seen it all before….The power of stereotype is so strong that it can overwhelm many of our other traits, which means that what you learned in kindergarten is true: you're only as good as you expect to be. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1900261,00.html#ixzz2TwIMXtpu
While current ‘facts’ indicate that as you age, you will begin to lose your capacity for working memory, just as you will lose muscle mass, eye strength and balance. However, recent research also documents that much of this decline can be minimized by adopting a more prevention oriented lifestyle that includes diet and fitness for the mind and body.
We now have valid research documenting what most of those subscribing to positive/successful/ active aging already knew: “People can be persuaded to believe either positive or negative stereotypes, and it can have a real impact on their performance in life.”
To paraphrase the author, you can apply this to your own older relatives. Never miss an opportunity when someone says they had a ‘senior moment’, that he/she's always the one who remembers the grandkids' birthdays or who recalls all the measurements in family recipes. Maybe such a little compliment will help them battle the years of negative stereotyping to which they have been subjected.