11/13/2013 03:57 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Power of Suggestion: Stay Positive About Aging

Why do people automatically assume that information about aging has to be a downer? And how does that assumption affect us?

An interesting study reported in the Journal of Experimental Aging Research suggested (pun intended) that reminders of links between memory and aging may hurt memory performance. The New York Times reported on this finding. Oh, sigh. Just what we need. A culture that harps on the cognitive downside of aging may actually be making it worse.

Self-fulfilling prophecy, anyone?

This research applies a concept known as "stereotype threat" to the field of aging. Under conditions of stereotype threat, just being reminded that a group in which you are a member is viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype is enough to hurt your performance.

So, for example, girls told, "Don't worry, girls can do just as well in math as boys," before a math test do worse than girls given the test without this "reassurance." Note: They're not told that they are actually worse. They are reminded, indirectly, of the belief that they are worse. This raises doubts and results in anxiety, which interferes with working memory and other abilities needed to support high performance. The scientific jury is IN: This is enough to keep people from doing their best.

Most of the research on stereotype threat has centered on standardized testing in schools. This new study extends the power of reminders, the power of suggestion, to older adults taking lab tests of memory. And guess what: In this new study, the young-old people (60-70 years) were even more sensitive than the old-old people (71-80 years).

Why? The authors apparently think that the young-old participants were new to this memory-and-aging thing. Perhaps they were more susceptible to the power of a stereotype. And maybe the older folks had made it through the transition and knew it wasn't as bad as they had feared.

In any case, my friends, maybe we should ease up on the memory jokes. They may be making matters worse... and remember that aging, if we're lucky, is universal. One day, it could be you at the butt end of that negative stereotype.

What about you? Do you find jokes about aging and memory funny or uncomfortable? Do you think negative attitudes towards aging affect how you feel and take care of yourself? Are you willing to encourage other people to speak more positively about aging?