The low expectations of others can have a powerful effect on how well older adults perform on cognitive tasks and motor skills, according to a Georgia State University gerontologist.

In a review of studies going back to 1990, researcher Sarah Barber, Ph.D., found evidence that the phenomenon called stereotype threat can affect older adults’ performance in a variety of settings.

It’s a phenomenon shown to occur among stigmatized groups, whether due to race, socioeconomic status or other attributes. When faced with negative stereotypes, people will tend to perform more poorly, Barber said. In older adults, it can affect their memory, physical performance, driving abilities, and even tests given in the physician’s office. 

Research shows that about 17% of individuals aged 50 or more years experience stereotype threat at their doctor’s office, for example. And approximately 8% worry that their physician is negatively evaluating them because of their age, Barber reported.

This perception can lead to underperformance on cognitive tests, which in turn can lead to greater distrust of physicians, dissatisfaction with healthcare services, poorer self-reported mental and physical health, and even higher rates of hypertension, the studies suggested.

“People worry that there is truth to the negatives,” Barber said. “When they forget, they may worry they are on a slippery slope towards dementia and decline.”

In lab studies, stereotype threat also is shown to affect physical abilities, leading to slower walking and weaker grip strength for older adults.

“We need to make people feel confident in their own abilities and feel that they will be respected no matter how they perform,” Barber said.

“Those who have positive attitudes about aging live longer, have better memory function and recover more easily from illnesses,” she noted.

The review was published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.