The media loves to plaster the virtues of youth in magazines, TV shows and billboards whenever it gets the chance. On the flip side, old age is often viewed negatively, and old people are often depicted as being slow, less intelligent, frail and often unable to care for themselves. In spite of all this cultural negativity, a new study has found that subtle positive messaging can lead to a healthier outlook on getting older and that those new attitudes can translate into benefits for the body as well as the mind.
The problem with negative messaging in the media about age is that it tends to cause people to act the way they think they’re supposed to. Previous studies have found that mental and physical performance in older adults is worse when they’re presented with stereotypes of older adults being physically and mentally inferior to their younger counterparts. While other researchers had shown that using obvious, positive age messages can have the opposite effect, no one had looked to see whether there are more subtle ways of doing to the same thing.
The researchers recruited 100 individuals over the age of 60 and randomly assigned them to either subliminally receive positive aging messages, explicitly receive positive aging messages, receive both or receive nothing. They underwent four-week-long periods of being exposed to these messages before being assessed. Subliminal messaging is a kind of message sent to a person that they don’t know they’ve perceived even though their brain has actually picked it up. Many studies have shown, for example, that words flashed on a screen too fast for a person to say they saw can actually influence a person’s behavior.
That was the method used in this study. After giving a person the topic of the words to be presented, “old age” for example, they flashed a series of words on a screen so fast the participant said they saw nothing at all. These messages could be positive or neutral. In the other arm of the study, the explicit group was asked to write stories about healthy older individuals.
Amazingly, the subliminal messages were actually more effective than the explicit ones in changing attitudes. Older adults who had received these messages had more positive opinions about old age, about the benefits of the aging process and about their own aging. They also held fewer negative ideas about aging. When their balance, strength and walking speed were tested, they performed better.
The researchers think the subliminal messaging works like this: The message first works its way into and changes the ideas a person holds about old age, which then changes the way a person thinks about themselves, subsequently pushing them to act in new ways in line with this new positive outlook.
The research reminds us how powerful stereotypes can be, but shows us that these negative ideas can be replaced with positive ones. The importance of this finding is obvious in the physical tests done by the researchers. Balance, strength and walking speed are all associated with how long someone is likely to live. Those who are weaker and frailer tend to have worse health and die sooner than those who are vigorous in old age. Changing the way older adults and our society in general think about old age can be enough to improve someone’s health and well-being and doing so can be fairly easy and unobtrusive.