Recent research suggests that exposure to ageist stereotypes can affect the mental and physical health and capabilities of older adults. Levy, Hausdorff, Hencke, and Wei (2000) found that exposing older adults to negative age stereotypes at a subliminal level led to a heightened cardiovascular response (measured by systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, and heart rate) to the stress of mathematical and verbal challenges, compared to that of older adults exposed to positive stereotypes about aging. In addition, exposure to age stereotypes has been shown to influence older adults’ will to live (Levy, Ashman, and Dror, 1999-2000), walking speed (Hausdorff, Levy, and Wei, 1999), and handwriting (Levy, 2000). Specifically, the handwriting of older adults who had been subliminally primed with negative stereotypes of old age was judged to be older, shakier, and relatively more deteriorated than the handwriting of older adults who had been subliminally primed with positive age stereotypes (Levy, 2000).
The effects of exposure to age stereotypes have also been implicated in the performance of older adults on tests of memory (Hess, Auman, Colcombe, and Rahhal, 2003; Levy and Langer, 1994; Stein, Blanchard-Fields, and Herzog, 2002). For instance, Hess and colleagues (2003) found that concerns about negative age stereotypes can undermine older adults’ memory performance through stereotype threat effects (Steele, Spencer, and Aronson, 2002). That is, older adults who were explicitly exposed to the stereotype that older adults have memory impairments (threat condition) performed more poorly on a subsequent recall task, compared to older adults who were exposed either to more optimistic information about aging and memory or to no information. Consistent with stereotype threat theory (Steele et al., 2002), both the importance of memory performance to participants and the activation of the negative memory stereotype predicted the subsequent performance of participants in the threat condition.
Similarly, there is some initial research suggesting that more subtle or implicit exposure to negative age stereotypes may also undermine performance on some memory tests, compared to implicit exposure to either positive stereotypes (Levy, 1996) or stereotype-irrelevant words (Stein et al., 2002). Although these latter studies on implicit self-stereotyping are promising, Stein and colleagues (2002) caution against their overinterpretation or application given the small sample sizes, apparent fragility of the findings, and modest effect sizes. Consistent with this work, however, a cross-cultural study revealed that older adults from cultures in which aging is viewed more positively (i.e., China and the American deaf community) performed better on a memory test than did older American hearing individuals (Levy and Langer, 1994; but see also Yoon, Hasher, Feinberg, Rahhal, and Winocur, 2000). There were no differences, however, in the