The elderly are a nuisance on the road. Older people are forgetful. These kinds of perceptions are what we call negative age stereotypes. While these views may be common in modern conversations, research led by Dr. Becca Levy, associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Medicine, suggests that stereotypes associated with old age may not have always been so negative.
To conduct the study, Levy’s team first developed an extensive list of synonyms for the word “elderly.” Using this list, researchers analyzed the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), a database of 100,000 sources including books, newspapers, and magazines published between 1810 and 2009. Words that were published in the COHA and associated strongly with “elderly” or related synonyms were rated on a scale ranging from “very positive” to “very negative.”
Ratings showed that age stereotypes in the United States were positive until 1879, but have become increasingly negative since 1880. The negative stereotypes seem to result from two factors: As medicine has advanced and cured acute illnesses, chronic illness — common among older people — has become more associated with death. This link has led to the view of the elderly as patients, more so than as individuals. Second, as the proportion of people over the age of 65 has increased in the US, there has been a growing perception of the elderly as a drain on economic resources.
Levy’s results further suggest that the older generation could be negatively affected by these stereotypes. According to Stereotype Embodiment Theory, the ideas that people internalize from their surroundings can affect not only their cognitive health, but also their physical health. Elderly individuals with more positive views of aging are more likely than those with negative views to take prescribed medications. The former group also shows lower rates of cardiovascular illness.
Stereotypes are not trivial — they influence multiple aspects of human health. Corrective action that addresses negative age stereotypes could help improve the health of the elderly population.