You likely have heard that memory fades as you get older. But how much of that is accurate, and how much is an illusion? Every year you get older, it feels like you go further down a path of irreversible oblivion, like Alice falling down a rabbit hole of foggy forgetfulness.
You may be more in control of your memory than you think. Though the aging brain's biology certainly affects older adults' memory retention, new research suggests that the issue may not be so straightforward. A significant component of diminished memory retention in older people has nothing to do with the brain itself—it has to do with stereotypes.
How Ageism Affects Memory Retention
Think about it—how often have you been exposed to the idea that older people are forgetful? Modern culture has long embraced tropes of an older woman haplessly misplacing her glasses or an older gentleman constantly mixing up his grandkids' names.
The media has milked the “Scatterbrained Senior” stereotype so much that it now has its listing on TV Tropes. Though these stereotypes are not intentionally malicious, they have a significant subliminal impact on our relationship with aging.
Unfortunately, such stereotypes are a self-fulfilling prophecy. A group of researchers at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology separated older adults into two groups before asking them to complete a memory task. One group received negative information about aging, reinforcing the traditional belief that age significantly affects memory retention. The others still need to receive such information. In the end, the group primed with negative information performed much worse on a recall task than those not exposed to negative stereotypes.
The Fatal Threat of Stereotype
For example, when young girls are told before a test that they are naturally worse at math than boys, they will score significantly lower than girls who were not told this information. The negative stereotypes to which the members of these groups are exposed inhibit performance, inducing performance anxiety and lowering self-confidence.
Furthermore, the effect of internalized negative stereotypes influences more than cognitive health. Shockingly, older people with more positive self-perceptions of aging lived, on average, 7.5 years longer than their counterparts with less positive self-perceptions. Such statistics illustrate the importance of maintaining a positive self-image—no matter what period of life. Not only will you feel better, but you will add years to your life.
Using Prompts to Remember
So how can you combat these stereotypes about aging? A good start is surrounding yourself with an age-positive environment and supporting your goals. It would help if you should then think confidently about your ability to remember what’s important to you. Remember—your age will not hold you back. Reminding yourself of your capabilities and pushing the limits of your memory may open up new frontiers for what you can recall.
One way to positively encourage yourself to remember is to answer questions, or prompts, that address specific experiences from your past. Prompts induce a reflex known as “instinctive elaboration,” meaning that the brain focuses all of its power on coming up with an answer. So, by answering a specific prompt, like those found on My Stories Matter, you harness your brain’s energy—and that’s a powerful resource.
What was the name of your prom date, and why did you go to prom with them? What was your earliest memory of your grandparents? What was your favorite family recipe? The answers to these questions are inside your brain—and we believe you can find them. If you consistently tell yourself that you can remember, there's a higher chance you will.
Can you cure your “forgetfulness”? Eliminating negative stereotypes is not an end-all solution to age-related memory problems, but it can make a difference. After all, you have more wisdom, life experiences, and special memories. What could be wrong with that?
Want to use tools to help you retain memories for you to look back on? Sign up for My Stories Matter free!