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How does aging effect performance at maths and science?

How does aging effect performance at maths and science?


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How does aging effect performance at maths and science? Clearly, it effects intelligence as measured by iq tests. But I wondered, is that reflected in e.g. mathematicians invariably doing their best work when younger?


Puzzle play helps boost learning of important math-related skills

Children who play with puzzles between ages 2 and 4 later develop better spatial skills, a study by University of Chicago researchers has found. Puzzle play was found to be a significant predictor of spatial skill after controlling for differences in parents’ income, education and the overall amount of parent language input.

In examining video recordings of parents interacting with children during everyday activities at home, researchers found children who play with puzzles between 26 and 46 months of age have better spatial skills when assessed at 54 months of age.

“The children who played with puzzles performed better than those who did not, on tasks that assessed their ability to rotate and translate shapes,” said psychologist Susan Levine, a leading expert on mathematics development in young children.

The ability to mentally transform shapes is an important predictor of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) course-taking, degrees and careers in older children. Activities such as early puzzle play may lay the groundwork for the development of this ability, the study found.

Levine, the Stella M. Rowley Professor in Psychology at UChicago, is lead author on a paper, “Early Puzzle Play: A Predictor of Preschoolers’ Spatial Transformation Skill,” published in the current early view issue of Developmental Science.

The study is the first to look at puzzle play in a naturalistic setting. For the research, 53 child-parent pairs from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds participated in a longitudinal study, in which researchers video-recorded parent-child interactions for 90-minute sessions that occurred every four months between 26 and 46 months of age.

The parents were asked to interact with their children as they normally would, and about half of the children in the study were observed playing with puzzles at least once. Higher-income parents tended to engage children with puzzles more frequently. Both boys and girls who played with puzzles had better spatial skills, but boys played with more complicated puzzles than girls, and the parents of boys provided more spatial language during puzzle play and were more engaged in play than the parents of girls.

Boys also performed better than girls on a mental transformation task given at 54 months of age.

“Further study is needed to determine if the puzzle play and the language children hear about spatial concepts is causally related to the development of spatial skills — and to examine why there is a sex difference in the difficulty of the puzzles played with and in the parents’ interactions with boys and girls,” Levine explained. “We are currently conducting a laboratory study in which parents are asked to play with puzzles with their preschool sons and daughters, and the same puzzles are provided to all participants.

“We want to see whether parents provide the same input to boys and girls when the puzzles are of the same difficulty,” Levine said. “In the naturalistic study, parents of boys may have used more spatial language in order to scaffold their performance.”

Alternatively, the difference in parent spatial language and engagement may be related to a societal stereotype that males have better spatial skills. “Our findings suggest that engaging both boys and girls in puzzle play can support the development of an aspect of cognition that has been implicated in success in the STEM disciplines,” Levine said.

Levine was joined in writing the paper by Kristin R. Ratliff, projectdirector for research and development at WPS Publishing Janellen Huttenlocher, the William S. Gray Professor Emeritus in Psychology at UChicago, and Joanna Cannon, New York City Department of Education.

The research on puzzle play is part of a series of studies based on observations in naturalistic settings Levine has led. In previous papers, she and colleagues have shown the importance of using words related to mathematics and spatial concepts in advancing children’s knowledge.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation (Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center) and by the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.


Growth hormone, athletic performance, and aging

Can human growth hormones really benefit aging, like the elusive fountain of youth? In 1513, the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon arrived in Florida to search for the fountain of youth. If he got any benefit from his quest, it was due to the exercise involved in the search.

Few men today believe in miraculous waters, but many, it seems, believe in the syringe of youth. Instead of drinking rejuvenating waters, they inject human growth hormone to slow the tick of the clock. Some are motivated by the claims of the "anti-aging" movement, others by the examples of young athletes seeking a competitive edge. Like Ponce de Len, the athletes still get the benefit of exercise, while older men may use growth hormone shots as a substitute for working out. But will growth hormone boost performance or slow aging? And is it safe?

What is human growth hormone?

Growth hormone (GH) is a small protein that is made by the pituitary gland and secreted into the bloodstream. GH production is controlled by a complex set of hormones produced in the hypothalamus of the brain and in the intestinal tract and pancreas.

The pituitary puts out GH in bursts levels rise following exercise, trauma, and sleep. Under normal conditions, more GH is produced at night than during the day. This physiology is complex, but at a minimum, it tells us that sporadic blood tests to measure GH levels are meaningless since high and low levels alternate throughout the day. But scientists who carefully measure overall GH production report that it rises during childhood, peaks during puberty, and declines from middle age onward.

GH acts on many tissues throughout the body. In children and adolescents, it stimulates the growth of bone and cartilage. In people of all ages, GH boosts protein production, promotes the utilization of fat, interferes with the action of insulin, and raises blood sugar levels. GH also raises levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1).

Human growth hormone benefits

GH is available as a prescription drug that is administered by injection. GH is indicated for children with GH deficiency and others with very short stature. It is also approved to treat adult GH deficiency — an uncommon condition that almost always develops in conjunction with major problems afflicting the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, or both. The diagnosis of adult GH deficiency depends on special tests that stimulate GH production simple blood tests are useless at best, misleading at worst.

Adults with bona fide GH deficiencies benefit from GH injections. They enjoy protection from fractures, increased muscle mass, improved exercise capacity and energy, and a reduced risk of future heart disease. But there is a price to pay. Up to 30% of patients experience side effects that include fluid retention, joint and muscle pain, carpal tunnel syndrome (pressure on the nerve in the wrist causing hand pain and numbness), and high blood sugar levels.

HGH doping and athletic performance

Adults who are GH deficient get larger muscles, more energy, and improved exercise capacity from replacement therapy. Athletes work hard to build their muscles and enhance performance. Some also turn to GH.

It's not an isolated problem. Despite being banned by the International Olympic Committee, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the World Anti-Doping Agency, GH abuse has tainted many sports, including baseball, cycling, and track and field. Competitive athletes who abuse GH risk disqualification and disgrace. What do they gain in return? And do they also risk their health?

Because GH use is banned and athletic performance depends on so many physical, psychological, and competitive factors, scientists have been unable to evaluate GH on the field. But they can conduct randomized clinical trials that administer GH or a placebo to healthy young athletes and then measure body composition, strength, and exercise capacity in the lab.

A team of researchers from California conducted a detailed review of 44 high-quality studies of growth hormone in athletes. The subjects were young (average age 27), lean (average body mass index 24), and physically fit 85% were male. A total of 303 volunteers received GH injections, while 137 received placebo.

After receiving daily injections for an average of 20 days, the subjects who received GH increased their lean body mass (which reflects muscle mass but can also include fluid mass) by an average of 4.6 pounds. That's a big gain — but it did not translate into improved performance. In fact, GH did not produce measurable increases in either strength or exercise capacity. And the subjects who got GH were more likely to retain fluid and experience fatigue than were the volunteers who got the placebo.

If you were a jock in high school or college, you're likely to wince at the memory of your coach barking "no pain, no gain" to spur you on. Today, athletes who use illegal performance-enhancing drugs risk the pain of disqualification without proof of gain.

Human growth hormone and aging

To evaluate the safety and efficacy of GH in healthy older people, a team of researchers reviewed 31 high-quality studies that were completed after 1989. Each of the studies was small, but together they evaluated 220 subjects who received GH and 227 control subjects who did not get the hormone. Two-thirds of the subjects were men their average age was 69, and the typical volunteer was overweight but not obese.

The dosage of GH varied considerably, and the duration of therapy ranged from two to 52 weeks. Still, the varying doses succeeded in boosting levels of IGF-1, which reflects the level of GH, by 88%.

As compared to the subjects who did not get GH, the treated individuals gained an average of 4.6 pounds of lean body mass, and they shed a similar amount of body fat. There were no significant changes in LDL ("bad") cholesterol, HDL ("good") cholesterol, triglycerides, aerobic capacity, bone density, or fasting blood sugar and insulin levels. But GH recipients experienced a high rate of side effects, including fluid retention, joint pain, breast enlargement, and carpal tunnel syndrome. The studies were too short to detect any change in the risk of cancer, but other research suggests an increased risk of cancer in general and prostate cancer in particular.

HGH, or simple diet and exercise?

"Every man desires to live long," wrote Jonathan Swift, "but no man would be old." He was right, but the fountain of youth has proved illusory. GH does not appear to be either safe or effective for young athletes or healthy older men. But that doesn't mean you have to sit back and let Father Time peck away at you. Instead, use the time-tested combination of diet and exercise. Aim for a moderate protein intake of about .36 grams per pound of body weight even big men don't need more than 65 grams (about 2 ounces) a day, though athletes and men recovering from illnesses or surgery might do well with about 20% more. Plan a balanced exercise regimen aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as walking, a day, and be sure to add strength training two to three times a week to build muscle mass and strength. You'll reduce your risk of many chronic illnesses, enhance your vigor and enjoyment of life, and — it's true — slow the tick of the clock.

Image: © porpeller | GettyImages


How Your State of Mind Affects Your Performance

Don, a senior vice president for sales at a global manufacturing company, wakes up late, scrambles to get showered and dressed, has an argument with his teenage daughter over breakfast, then gets stuck in traffic on the way to work and realizes he will be late for his first meeting.

Donna, a marketing executive, wakes at 6 for a quick spin on the exercise bike, takes a moment to stretch and relax, then quickly gets herself ready, dresses and feeds her two kids before walking them to the bus, then catches the train to the office.

Which executive will have a more productive day at work?

That depends on whether Don—who’s had the more difficult morning—is able to manage his state of mind. For 20 years, we’ve worked with leaders in more than 30 countries and across diverse industries to help them understand how state of mind (that is, their moment-to-moment experience of life as generated by their thinking and as expressed by their feelings) can affect their leadership, and to help them manage their respective states of mind, rather than being managed by them.

Two years ago our organization launched a long-term global research initiative to provide quantitative data on the topic. We selected 18 states of mind and surveyed leaders around the world on how often they experience each one, the impact of each on their effectiveness and performance, and what they do to manage their states of mind. To date, we have surveyed and interviewed over 740 leaders.

Below is a chart that lists the percentage of leaders who reported experiencing each of the 18 states of mind often or regularly:

Of the 18 states of mind in the chart, it came as no surprise that 94% of respondents reported that Calm, Happy and Energized (CHE) are the three that drive the greatest levels of effectiveness and performance. As Giglio Del Borgo, a country manager at Experian explains: “If you are energized, without being necessarily too excited about things or euphoric, that energy will transmit into the people working around you.”

The chart clearly shows that most leaders seem able to access CHE states on a regular basis. However, Frustrated, Anxious, Tired and Stressed (FATS) states of mind were also relatively common. And we found that certain factors such as age, gender, organizational level, organizational tenure, span of influence, and type/size of organization, are correlated with similar states of mind, with lower states more prevalent in certain categories of people—including the young, the male, those with less tenure, and those operating at lower organizational levels.

Most leaders reported that FATS states often yield benefits in the short term but are detrimental in the long term – especially to relationships. They also report that it is difficult to shift out of these states of mind when they are consistently present in the organizational culture or environment. Davida Fedeli, a former vice-president of human resources for Western Union Europe, told us: “There were times during the change integration process when I was constantly feeling frustrated because I was second-guessing stakeholder expectations. [But] at the end of the day, I was not getting the results I wanted by continuously staying in that state of mind.”

The leaders who responded to our survey also reported that it is much harder to shift from below the line states of mind to above the line states of mind. As Jim Daniell, COO of Oxfam America, noted, “When you’re stressed and frustrated it is much harder to see the state of mind you are in, and unless you have clear strategies to be aware of it when you are in it and then shift it, you more than likely will cause serious harm to yourself and your organization.”

So how do leaders shift from lower states of mind to higher states of mind and improve their effectiveness and performance? And how can they help other people in their organizations who tend to default to lower states of mind do the same? We’ve consolidated the best practices into four categories:

Thoughts and feelings. Acknowledge your emotions to reduce their intensity. Allow your thoughts to be transient. Visualize positive images to generate positive feelings. Refocus your attention on different stimuli. Journal to find clarity. And engage in meaningful conversations to foster understanding and optimism.

Physiology. Use deep breathing to reduce stress. Stretch to loosen muscles, stimulate blood flow and improve cognitive function. And take breaks to clear the mind, relax the prefrontal cortex and increase contentment.

External environment. Adjust lighting and block noise to generate calm. Listen to music to stimulate reflection. Eliminate clutter to reduce anxiety and improve focus. And spend time in nature to shift perspective.

Health and well-being. Eat a well-balanced diet, stick to an exercise regimen and get adequate sleep to maintain your energy and balance.

Everything in the last category is a must-do. From the others, we recommend choosing the handful of practices that work best for you, then employing them together with consistency.

Don did just that. Realizing the state he was in, he took stock of his anxiety, engaged in deep breathing, visualized having a positive conversation with his daughter, and accepted that he would not change the traffic. He then began to explore how he would manage his lateness and his workload. His state of mind shifted and he felt clear for the first time that day.


Stereotypes of Aging: Their Effects on the Health of Older Adults

The purpose of this review is to present findings on the effects of stereotypes of aging on health outcomes related to older adults, such as physical and mental functioning (specifically) and overall well-being and perceived quality of life (more broadly). This review shows that both positive and negative stereotypes of aging can have enabling and constraining effects on the actions, performance, decisions, attitudes, and, consequently, holistic health of an older adult. This review further highlights a variety of limitations in stereotype research in aging contexts, including a lack of qualitative studies focusing on older adult perspectives and the fluctuating definition of what constitutes “good health” during older age.

1. Introduction

Aging is a highly individualized and complex process yet it continues to be stereotyped, especially in Western cultures. Stereotypes about a particular group play a powerful role in shaping how we think about and interact with individuals, as well as how individuals within the stereotyped group see themselves [1].

Stereotypes are unchallenged myths or overstated beliefs associated with a category which are widespread and entrenched in verbal, written, and visual contexts within society [2]. Stereotypes of aging include assumptions and generalizations about how people at or over a certain age should behave, and what they are likely to experience, without regard for individual differences or unique circumstances [3].

Stereotypes of aging in contemporary culture, particularly North America, are primarily negative, depicting later life as a time of ill health, loneliness, dependency, and poor physical and mental functioning [1, 3]. However, stereotypes of ageing can also be positive (e.g., healthy, wealthy, and wise) or neutral and they are continually changing over time and across contexts [3–5]. Views of old age, and the perceptions older adults hold of themselves, are complex, multidimensional, and dynamic [5]. In other words, stereotypes of aging are social constructs that are culturally and historically situated, as well as individually interpreted.

Notably, any stereotype of aging (including those that equate aging with frailty and decline, or later life with health and affluence) has the potential to reinforce ageism (i.e., social oppression based on age [6, 7]) because they position ill health in old age as undesirable [8, 9] and they do not acknowledge the vast diversity among older adults [3]. The terms “older adults,” “older people,” “older individuals,” “old age,” “the elderly,” or “seniors” have been used interchangeably in academic literature, policy, and popular press to refer to people who are aged 55 years or older. Therefore, although we adopt the general term “older adults” in this review, we recognize the extensive heterogeneity among this group of people. Given this diversity, it is important to acknowledge from the outset that older adults are unlikely to respond to stereotypes as a single entity.

The purpose of this review is to report findings on the effects of stereotypes of aging on health outcomes related to older adults, such as physical and mental functioning (specifically) and overall well-being and perceived quality of life (more broadly). The health outcome of focus in each study, or group of studies, has been italicized as the literature is discussed below.

This review first briefly summarizes how stereotypes work to affect health. Then, the literature is organized in terms of the theory and method underpinning each group of studies, with particular focus on stereotype activation experiments. The initial discussion will focus primarily (although not exclusively) on the effect of negative stereotypes, while the latter will focus on the effects of positive stereotypes. In doing so, this review highlights that both positive and negative stereotypes of aging can simultaneously have enabling and constraining effects on the actions, performance, decisions, attitudes, and, consequently, holistic health of an older adult.

This review will also highlight a variety of limitations in stereotype research in aging contexts, including a lack of qualitative studies focusing on older adult perspectives and the fluctuating definition of what constitutes “good health” during older age. Increasing our awareness of the multiple effects of stereotypes on individual health outcomes in older adults, and the assumptions embedded in research findings, can promote changes in individual and societal attitudes and behaviors, as well as policy and professional infrastructures that benefit older adults.

2. How Stereotypes Work to Affect Health

While physical and cognitive declines in later life can be explained in physiological terms, psychosocial and sociocultural factors also play a key role in this process. Research in mainstream gerontology and psychology has demonstrated the effects of stereotypes of aging on the health of older people however, the mechanisms by which this occurs is constantly debated within and across disciplines [10–13]. Researchers have identified numerous theories of how stereotypes of aging impact older adults, primarily internalization/stereotype embodiment, stereotype threat, downward social comparison/resilience, and (more recently) stereotype boost and upward social comparison/role models [14–16]. Given the range of theories used to explain how stereotypes work to affect health, knowing which theory is driving each study is necessary so that their findings can be clearly understood.

Within these frameworks, experimental studies involving stereotype activation have shown that both implicit (subtle/subconscious) and explicit (conscious) negative age stereotyping can have similar detrimental effects on the performance of older people in physical and mental tasks [16, 17]. In 2012, Meisner [17] conducted a meta-analysis to compare the strength of positive versus negative age stereotyping effects on behavioral outcomes in older adults. He found, regardless of the type of prime awareness, discipline of study, method, or participant group, that negative age priming elicited a stronger effect (of almost three times larger) on the performance of older individuals during physical and mental tasks than did positive age priming [17]. However, a major limitation of this analysis was that most of the studies included in the review came from Levy’s lab. Other reviews, such as Hess et al. [18], found that research on implicit stereotypes has shown that emphasizing positive stereotypes and images of aging can weaken the negative influences of a situation on the behavior of older adults. For example, Hess et al. [19] compared implicit and explicit priming of aging stereotypes on older adults’ memory performance and found that those primed implicitly showed significant differences in memory, with positive primes showing greater recall than negative primes. To highlight the heightened effect of domain-specific stereotypes on cognitive and physical outcomes in older adults, Levy and Leifheit-Limson [20, page 230] found that when the age stereotype matched the outcome domain there was a stronger effect on performance, suggesting that when stereotype matching occurs “it is more likely to generate expectations that become self-fulfilling prophecies.” They called this the stereotype-matching effect [20, 21].

To complicate and extend these findings, however, other studies have shown that explicit positive aging stereotypes can have constraining effects on older people’s attitudes and health behavior and that negative aging stereotypes can be resisted by older adults resulting in enabling effects such as feelings of personal empowerment and associated health benefits [8, 15, 22, 23].

Notably, studies on the effects of stereotypes on the health of older individuals typically define health in old age in terms of biomedical and psychosocial models of “successful aging,” with indicators of “good health” including low levels (or absence) of disease and disease-related disability, high levels of physical and cognitive functioning, continued social and active engagement in life, and overall contentment, mental health, and the ability to adjust to changes [8]. Nevertheless, the definition of what constitutes “good health” in older age varies across studies. Collectively, research on this topic highlights the complexity in effects of stereotypes on the health of older individuals there is no conventional pattern as to how stereotypes are internalized into self-stereotypes and/or perceptions of oneself as an older adult, nor the mechanisms underlying this process.

3. Effects of Negative Stereotypes

Most studies on stereotypes of aging focus on the constraining effects of negative stereotypes for an older adult’s health and ways to minimize/counteract these effects [1]. The findings from stereotype activation experiments and longitudinal studies have been useful in this regard [24].

3.1. Stereotype Activation and Longitudinal Studies
3.1.1. Implicit Priming of Stereotypes of Aging (and Stereotype Embodiment/Internalization)

Results from numerous experimental studies conducted by Levy and colleagues to test memory, hand writing skills, and walking ability indicated that subliminal exposure to negative age stereotypes can negatively affect (or lead to no changes in) performance in these domains in older adults, while implicit priming with positive stereotypes of aging (such as wise and sage) tended to improve performance [25–27]. For example, in Levy’s innovative 1996 study, it was shown that older adults who were implicitly primed with negative aging stereotype words (e.g., senile, dependent, and incompetent) and then asked to undertake memory tasks performed worse than the positively primed group, regardless of age, gender, level of education, previous computer use, mood, and location of residence [27]. Also, Levy et al. [28] and Levy et al. [29] found that aging self-stereotypes had a direct impact on physiological function, with negative aging stereotype (subliminal) primes increasing cardiovascular stress in white and African American older individuals, respectively, before and after mental challenges, such as word and math tests.

Moreover, the influence of stereotypes of aging on the health of older individuals can vary across cultures. For example, using a cross-cultural approach, Levy and Langer [30] conducted a comparative study and found that American hearing older adults held the least positive views of the aging process when compared to American deaf older adults and Chinese older adults. Accordingly, the American hearing group performed the worst in memory tasks, followed by the American deaf, and the Chinese group performed the best. However, Yoon et al. [31] did not replicate these findings in their study of Chinese Canadians and Anglophone Canadians because the differences in memory were specific to particular types of memory tests. They also did not conclude that the relationship between culture and aging was mediated by positive attitudes about aging. In spite of these differences, both Levy and Langer and Yoon studies found smaller age differences in those groups who held more positive beliefs about aging. While cross-cultural research regarding stereotypes has shown more positive stereotypes are held in European and Asian cultures, this research has also highlighted that the same number and contexts of negative age stereotypes (i.e., cognitive incompetence) exist in these cultures, similar to Western cultures [32].

Building on Levy’s body of work, numerous studies have shown that implicit priming of negative age stereotypes can have adverse effects on physical and cognitive functioning. For example, Auman et al. [33] found stereotype related increases in anxiety, skin conductance, and blood pressure among a sample of middle-aged and older men with hypertension (at an outpatient program) when the prime focused on sickness, helplessness, and dependence. A key finding from this study was that the fear of being perceived as sick (as described in the negative stereotype prime) could actually discourage people from seeking medical assistance, indicating that the concept of stereotype threat (discussed below) is working in conjunction with the internalization of negative stereotypes. In contrast to Levy’s [27] findings, however, Stein et al. [34] found that priming with a positive age stereotype did not improve memory performance for a group of older adults. Stein et al. used a photo recall task and a dot location task to measure the memory performance of 60 older adults before and after they were implicitly primed with a negative age stereotype, a positive age stereotype, or neutral primes. It was found that memory performance was undermined among those older adults who were negatively primed and unaware of the primes.

In addition to these short-term effects on performance, Levy et al. [35] showed that aging self-stereotypes can influence older individuals’ will-to-live. In this study on responses to hypothetical medical situations, older adults who were subconsciously exposed to negative stereotype primes were less likely to accept medical treatment that could prolong their life. In 2006, Levy et al. [36] examined the age stereotypes of 546 community dwelling adults aged 70–96 years and found that those who held more negative and externally (i.e., physical appearance)-related age stereotypes showed greatest hearing loss 36 months after the initial test. Although this study did not use implicit priming, the authors speculated that such findings could have health-behavior consequences, such as older adults not seeking assistance from health professionals due to their belief that hearing loss is a normal and inevitable part of the aging process [36].

Finally, given the limitations of controlled settings in the above studies, more recent research by Levy and colleagues aimed to determine if everyday encounters with negative stereotypes across one’s lifetime are associated with cognitive outcomes [37]. They found that, over a 38-year period, individuals with more negative age stereotypes showed significantly worse memory performance compared to those who held less negative age stereotypes and emphasized the robust impact self-relevance has on the effects of stereotypes [37]. This finding supports the view that because older adults are often exposed to negative stereotyping, through everyday interactions in the community and health care settings, this constant exposure may serve as a negative prime which can activate internalized negative age stereotypes [38]. To understand how these internal mechanisms operate alongside external factors in the environment, researchers have drawn on stereotype threat theory with a focus on the effects of explicitly activating negative stereotypes of aging. Stereotype threat theory proposes that presenting familiar negative stereotypes associated with a certain group threatens this group into a scenario where they fear reaffirming these negative depictions [39–42].

3.1.2. Explicit Priming of Stereotypes of Aging (and Stereotype Threat)

Studies using explicit (rather than implicit) priming techniques have found mostly similar (yet some conflicting) effects of aging stereotypes on physical and cognitive performance, as shown below. Most studies underpinned by stereotype threat theory have examined memory or cognitive performance of older adults [12]. The relationship between stereotype threat and regressions in memory performance has been found among older adults who were explicitly primed with a negative stereotype (in the way the task was framed) [43–45], especially among those who were greatly invested in their memory ability or had high levels of education [46–48]. Stereotype threat has also been found to worsen older adults’ math performance [49] and general cognitive ability [50].

A meta-analysis by Horton and colleagues [16] on the impact of stereotype threat on older adults’ performance on memory tasks found an overall weighted effect size (i.e., the magnitude of change due to experimental manipulation) of 0.38 (with those exposed to negative stereotype primes in the studies reviewed performing the worst on tasks). However, Horton et al. [16] acknowledged that their review did not include unpublished studies, such as master and doctoral theses, and they cite two such studies that did not find an effect on cognitive performance among older adults exposed to stereotype threat.

A more recent meta-analysis of age-based stereotype threat and effects on performance among older people (average 69.5 years) by Lamont et al. [51] included 22 published and 10 unpublished articles. They found a significant, yet small-to-medium, effect size of 0.28 (with older adults, regardless of age and gender, memory and cognitive performance were negatively affected by age-based stereotype threat). Lamont et al. also revealed that older adults were less affected by age-based stereotype threat when fact-based (rather than stereotype-based) manipulations are used (

) and when performance is tested using cognitive (rather than physical) tasks (

). The inclusion of unpublished studies in this review allowed for a comprehensive analysis of age-based stereotype threat effects which stresses that this threat is a real problem which older people face, especially within formal test contexts. Also, Hess et al. [19], in their comparison of the effects of implicit and explicit priming of aging stereotypes, found that with subtle (as opposed to highly obvious) explicit primes older adults were able to offset the impact of negative stereotypes on memory performance, indicating a type of resilience to the effect of negative stereotypes on performance (a finding that supports resilience theory, discussed below).

Scholl and Sabat [52] argue that to decrease the impact of stereotype threat individuals need to experience a sense of perceived control over the situation which can be achieved by giving older individuals autonomy over personal decisions regarding their health, aiding in the development of more internal health locus of control and motivation to seek out preventative health measures. In addition, given the finding that the effect of stereotype threat (and the associated level of anxiety) is heightened when a person is being tested in a domain where their ability in that area is deeply important to them, “it is vital that practitioners have in-depth knowledge of their clients so as to understand which of their attributes are, and always have been, valued greatly” [52, page 123].

In terms of broader health outcomes related to stereotype threat, Coudin and Alexopoulos [53] examined the effects of explicit negative stereotype activation (i.e., reading a text) on French older adults’ self-reported loneliness, risk-taking, subjective health, and help-seeking behavior and found that such activation had harmful effects on participants’ self-evaluation and functioning, which may consequently lead to increased dependency. This study highlighted the role of interpersonal and situational factors for inducing dependency among older adults. In support, Burgess et al. [39, page S169] argued that “by recognizing and understanding the factors that can trigger stereotype threat and understanding its consequences in medical settings, providers can prevent it from occurring or ameliorate its consequences for patient behavior and outcomes.”

In addition to these short-term performance effects of explicit negative stereotyping, repeated exposure to stereotype threat can result in disengagement from domains that are perceived as threatening to one’s self-esteem, which in the longer term can lead to disidentifcation (i.e., avoiding any activities that may result in reaffirming negative stereotypes) [1, 53]. In the case of older adults, this may involve removing themselves from physical and mental activities because they “no longer view the domain as central to their identity and, as a result, stop expending effort in this domain [39, page S169],” which can have a negative effect on their holistic health [54].

On the other hand (and in line with the Hess et al. [19] study cited above), Horton et al. [40] suggested that some older adults may not be affected by negative stereotypes. This study tested 99 older adults on six dependent measures, namely, memory recall, reaction time, grip strength, flexibility, walking speed, and self-concept. The findings indicated that older adults were affected by the stereotype intervention, but “they suffered no performance decrements on the main dependent measures [40, page 353].” With regard to memory performance, these findings contrast the meta-analysis performed previously by Horton et al. [16] detailed above. Horton et al. [40] note that the specific nature of the participants in their 2010 study (healthy, well educated, and living in a popular retirement locality in Canada) highlights the possibility that certain older adults may be resistant to the potential threat of negative stereotypes of aging. This study showed the importance of understanding how individual older adults respond differently to stereotypes, as well as how they individually perceive their own aging.

3.2. Downward Social Comparison (and Resilience Theory)

From a sociological and qualitative perspective, Dionigi and colleagues have found downward social comparison to be typical amongst highly active older adults. Older athletes tend to express a very negative perception of old age or “other” older adults, despite having positive self-perceptions of their own aging [4]. Highly active older adults have been shown to express a desire to maintain physical and mental activity to avoid becoming “old” as they stereotypically understand it (i.e., frail, dependent on others, and diseased) [4, 8]. On one hand, this finding represents an active resistance to aging stereotypes, which can be personally empowering, but on the other hand it reinforces ageism and the individual (and cultural) fear of ill health in old age by positioning ill health in old age as undesirable or irrational, rather than a natural process [4, 23].

From a psychosocial perspective, when explaining the acquisition of self-stereotypes of aging, Levy [55] describes the above as the process of identifying oneself as “old” and argues that the more negative the aging stereotypes one holds, the more resistant one is to accepting themselves as old. This resistance could be a form of denial of the physiological realities of the aging process, which could be maladaptive to overall health and a sense of identity in later life [4, 56]. The important message here is that there is much diversity and complexity in older adults’ perceptions and internalization of aging stereotypes, which can affect an individual’s health in multiple ways [15].

3.3. Emerging Qualitative Research Findings

Qualitative research findings highlight the complexity inherent in trying to make sense of multidimensional concepts such as perceptions and stereotypes of aging. For example, research by Dionigi et al. [8] found that Canadian women aged 75 years and over who were not physically active expressed more positive attitudes towards their own aging and the term “old” compared to the women in the sample who were highly physically active. In other words, even though these women held high expectations and positive views of their own aging and positive stereotypes of old age, it did not mean they were more likely to engage in preventative health behaviors, such as physical activity, in later life. Recently, there has been a call for a more culturally relevant, domain-specific, gender-specific, multidirectional, and multidimensional perspective of aging experiences, feelings, and perceptions [5, 24, 57–60]. With regard to gender differences, a quantitative study by Schafer and Shippee [58] found that feeling older led to more negative views about cognitive aging among women, but not men, aged 55 years and over. More studies on differences between men and women with regard to the effects of stereotypes on health outcomes are needed.

In 2014, Miche et al. [24] used an open-ended, diary approach with 225 men and women (aged 70–88 years) about age-related experiences. They highlighted that content-based, social-cognitive, and social-emotional age-related changes were more important for participants’ overall well-being than functional age-related changes. Similarly, a review by Diehl et al. [57] argued that long term health benefits among older people will only be reached if individuals are given the opportunity to take active control of their own lives and develop a clear understanding of their aging process. Diehl et al. developed a conceptual model that allows researchers to create individual need profiles that can be used for intervention and translational research targeting optimal health in later life. These findings question the emphasis in gerontology on the relationship between functional ability and health in later life. They highlight the need to broaden understandings of what constitutes health in old age with particular emphasis on how older individuals define “good health” and “successful aging” in their terms [8].

4. Effects of Positive Stereotypes

While it has been shown that implicit and explicit activation of negative age stereotypes can negatively impact older adults’ short-term performance in physical and cognitive domains, and potential long-term health outcomes (i.e., health-related behaviors), the effects of positive stereotypes of aging appear more complicated and are comparatively underresearched. The following review will focus on findings that have emerged from experimental studies primarily related to the effects of positive stereotypes of aging on the health of older adults.

4.1. Implicit Priming of Positive Stereotypes of Aging (and Internalization)

Preliminary evidence suggests that implicit positive stereotype primes can improve performance in older individuals [16]. For example, many of Levy and colleagues’ implicit priming studies reviewed in previous sections revealed that the positively primed group improved their performance in the task being measured, such as memory [19, 27], swing time, and balance speed associated with walking [25], or had no change in their performance after being primed, such as a muted cardiovascular response to cognitive challenges [28]. The latter finding led to the assumption that positive primes may act as a buffer to the effects of negative stereotypes [28].

In addition, Levy et al. [35] found in their hypothetical will-to-live study that those who were exposed to positive aging stereotypes were more likely to accept the life-prolonging medical intervention. However, in contrast to Levy’s findings on memory [27], it was mentioned earlier that Stein et al. [34] found that older individual’s memory performance did not improve after they were primed with a positive age stereotype. Therefore, it cannot be assumed that implicit positive primes will always lead to improved performance in older adults. Nevertheless, researchers have begun to examine if experimentally making people feel younger will result in improvements in physical and mental performance.

4.2. Explicit Priming of Positive Stereotypes of Aging (and Stereotype Boost)

Experimental studies on the potential for stereotype boost effects with older adults emerged in 2013. Swift et al. [61] examined the performance of older adults in a domain where they are stereotyped more favorably than younger people (via crossword puzzles). They found that, compared with the control condition, the enhancing social comparison boosted performance among the older adults [61].

Although explicitly making people feel favorable compared to younger people in experimental studies has shown short-term improvements in physical [62] and cognitive [61] tasks, respectively, longer-term effects of explicit positive stereotypes in the daily lives of older adults (such as media messages depicting “healthy, active, and happy” older people) and the effects of dominant “successful aging” discourses (found in academic literature and popular press) are less well known. Making upward, rather than downward, social comparisons has multiple likely effects on the health behaviors of older individuals [63].

4.3. Upward Social Comparison and Role Models

Emerging role model research pertaining to older adults has highlighted the multiple enabling and constraining effects of upward social comparisons on older adults’ attitudes and health-related behaviors [15, 63, 64]. On the one hand, upward social comparisons, such as comparison with authentic older people who are active and healthy, highlight what is possible in later life which can motivate individuals to become more active themselves and counteract the development of negative self-stereotypes of aging [3]. For example, for already moderately active older adults, older sportspeople may inspire them to become even more active [15, 63, 65].

On the other hand, if highly active, healthy older people are perceived as unrealistic representations of what is likely in later life, such representations can intimidate others, produce feelings of guilt and anxiety amongst older adults who cannot or do not want to meet that standard, and discourage people from engaging in certain health-related behaviors [3, 64, 65]. For instance, Kotter-Grühn and Hess [22] provided evidence for the negative effects of positive age stereotypes on healthy older adults (such as feeling older and less satisfied with their aging) when confronted with positive and healthy images and descriptions of people their own age. The fact that Hess et al. [46] found a small effect size (0.13) in an explicit positively primed condition on a memory task with older adults lends support to this argument. These findings question the assumption that explicitly priming older adults with positive stereotypes will have a positive impact on their performance and overall health however, these results remain contentious.

Given these contrasting effects of positive stereotypes of aging, and their potential for positive or negative effects on older individual’s views of their own aging, and consequently their health or health-related practices, more research is needed on how older adults themselves interpret dominant notions of positive aging. This is particularly important in contemporary Western culture because more positive depictions of aging as a period of ongoing activity and health are emerging [4]. While examples of “exceptional” older adults, such as the athletic feats of older sportspeople, “may be effective in altering societal stereotypes and inspiring those in a younger cohort, they could have a very different effect on those in their own peer group [65, page 131].” More studies using in-depth interviews, life histories, and narrative approaches in gerontology and health care may be effective in understanding how older people react to multiple positive and negative stereotypes. This is because a narrative approach to aging makes ordinary, individual life stories explicit, which can work to breakdown generalizations or stereotypes about aging [66].

5. Limitations of Stereotype Research in Aging Contexts

This review of literature on the effects of stereotypes of aging on the health of older adults has highlighted that while valuable knowledge has been gained, such as the finding that both positive and negative stereotypes of aging can be problematic for health, more research in this area is necessary. In particular, the majority of research on this topic (grounded in Levy’s work) tends to express a positive-negative binary, or use positive-neutral-negative examples, of aging stereotypes in studies, which can hide the complexity of the effects of stereotypes on older adults [10]. While Levy’s work has been invaluable in drawing attention to the effects of stereotypes, such an approach tends to assume that older people interpret stereotypes in similar ways which masks the fluidity of age stereotypes [10].

The findings from studies which test older adults’ ability to perform cognitive and/or physical tasks collectively indicate that the testing context, in particular the language used, the expectations set for, and the instructions given to participants in that context, will ultimately influence the results [1, 16]. For example, Hehman and Bugental [67] examined how ageist (patronizing) speech negatively affected older (

, ages 61–98) adults’ performance (relative to younger people) on a cognitive task and increased their cortisol levels. On the other hand, they found that older adults who had more positive interactions and communication with younger people were not affected by the performance decrements resulting from patronizing communication. Hehman and Bugental argue that, “Repeated exposure to patronizing communication may result in elevated basal cortisol levels, which then has negative implications for older adults’ physical, cognitive, and psychological well-being [67, page 558].” Therefore, reliance on such data that measures older adults’ performance is problematic, not only because it provides an inadequate representation of their overall cognitive and/or mental abilities, but also because it can have long-term health implications. This is a major limitation in the interpretation of all stereotype related research within aging populations. Furthermore, researchers, clinicians, or anyone involved in testing older individuals on activities of daily living need to be mindful that “even the subtle cues they give off subconsciously, may be picked up by their participants and ultimately affect how they perform” [16, page 463].

Also, many stereotype activation studies appear to assume that older adults have either a positive or a negative view of aging when in fact both gains and losses are often viewed as part of “healthy aging” in later life [8, 68]. Furthermore, the assumed definition of what constitutes “good health” in old age in the majority of studies on the effects of aging stereotypes is problematic. A single definition of what constitutes good health in old age does not exist in fact, in a recent review of “successful aging” literature, Depp et al. [69] found 28 different working definitions of the term across the 27 studies reviewed and Jylhä argued that “there is no single universally agreed definition or direct measure of ‘health’ or ‘health status’ [70, page 309].”

Moreover, how an older individual defines health may be quite different from (yet just as valid as) how an “expert” defines health [8]. In other words, “…‘health’ belongs to the realm of everyday talk rather than any exact scientific vocabulary [70, page 309].” For instance, Jylhä’s paper on self-rated, subjective health highlighted the importance of integrating both cultural and biological information from biomedical and social science disciplines, as well as the individual’s bodily sensations and feelings, to make sense of how people rate their health. All in all, “aging is a dynamic process involving both decline and opportunities for continued development [71, page 856]” and stereotypes of aging play a powerful role in this process. Therefore, calls have been made for the use of qualitative research to better understand people’s own explanations and accounts of aging and the effects of stereotypes. For example, “Qualitative analyses, inviting people to describe and verbalize their bodily sensations and interpret them in relation to their health status, would help create a new body of information on factors underlying self-rated health [70, page 314].”

Finally, it is important to mention that older adults are often members of multiple stereotyped groups, such as being older, female, and from an ethnic minority or being older, male, and disabled, or being older and from a sexual minority group [72]. Therefore, further research is needed to explore the effects of stereotypes on the health of older adults who belong to more than one stereotyped group. For example, from a psychosocial perspective research could determine if there is a cumulative effect of stereotyping that leads to greater vulnerability or a developed immunity in place that leads to resilience in later life [55]. From a sociological perspective research could examine how intersections of racism, sexism, heterosexism, cultural diversity, and ageism affect the lives of a diverse range of older individuals [73].

6. Summary and Conclusion

In summary, stereotypes of aging are pervasive in our culture and they have been found to influence how older adults see themselves [22, 74–76] how older adults view other older adults (social comparison and beliefs about old age) [8, 15, 22] older adults’ cognitive and physical performances [16, 25, 26, 28, 29, 37, 55, 77] the ability of older adults to recover from disease [78] older adults’ health behaviors, including their decisions to engage in cognitive, social, and physical activity [1, 4, 21, 65, 79] and/or seek medical assistance [33, 35, 53, 80] as well as how older adults are treated by others and society as a whole [1, 3, 4, 7, 81–83].

All of the above outcomes have the potential to affect the holistic health (i.e., mental, physical, social, and emotional well-being) of an older person and ultimately the length and quality of their life. However, to make sense of the studies reporting the complex effects of stereotypes of aging on the health of older individuals, one needs to understand the theoretical underpinnings of the research, the strengths and limitations in the methods used to analyze the effects and recognize the authors’ assumed (and perhaps limiting) understanding of what constitutes good health in older age.

Conflict of Interests

The author declares that there is no conflict of interests regarding the publication of this paper.

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Copyright

Copyright © 2015 Rylee A. Dionigi. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Colors may affect performance, study suggests

Trying to improve your performance at work or kick-start that novel you want to write? Maybe it's time to consider the color of your walls, or your screen saver.

If a new study is any guide, the color red can make people's work more accurate, but blue can make them more creative.

In the study, published Thursday in the online edition of Science magazine, researchers at the University of British Columbia conducted tests with 600 participants to see how cognitive performance varies when people see red or blue. Participants performed tasks in which words or images were displayed against red, blue or neutral backgrounds on computer screens.

Red groups did better on tests of recall and attention to detail, like remembering words or checking spelling and punctuation. Blue groups did better on tests requiring invention and imagination: coming up with creative uses for a brick or creating toys from collections of shapes.

"If you're talking about wanting enhanced memory for something like proofreading skills, then a red color should be used," concluded Juliet Zhu, an assistant professor of marketing at the university's business school, who conducted the studies with Ravi Mehta, a doctoral student. For "a brainstorming session for a new product or coming up with a new solution to fight child obesity or teenage smoking, then you should get people into a blue room."

Whether color can color performance or emotions has long fascinated scientists - not to mention advertisers, sports teams and restaurateurs.

Consider the Olympic uniform study, in which anthropologists at Durham University in England found that athletes in the 2004 Olympics who wore red instead of blue in boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling, and freestyle wrestling won 60 percent of the time. The researchers suggested that red, for athletes, as for animals, subconsciously symbolizes dominance.

Perhaps a similarly primal effect was afoot in a 2008 study led by Andrew Elliot at the University of Rochester, in which men considered photographs of women on red backgrounds or wearing red shirts more attractive, although not necessarily more likable or intelligent.

Then there was the cocktail party study, in which a group of interior designers, architects and corporate color scientists built makeshift bars in red, blue or yellow. They found that more people chose the yellow and red rooms over blue, but blue partygoers stayed longer. Red and yellow guests were more social and active. And while red guests reported feeling hungry and thirsty, yellow guests ate twice as much.

In cognitive realms, experts say colors may affect performance because of the mood they transmit.

"When things go wrong or when you feel that the situation you are in is problematic, you are more likely to pay attention to detail, which helps you with processing tasks but interferes with creative types of things," said Norbert Schwarz, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. By contrast, "people in a happy mood are more creative and less analytic."

Many people link red to problematic things, like emergencies or mistakes on tests, experts say. Such "associations to red - stop, fire, alarm, warning - can be activated without a person's awareness, and then influence what they are thinking about or doing," said John Bargh, a psychology professor at Yale. "Blue seems a weaker effect than red, but blue skies, blue water are calm and positive, and so that effect makes sense, too."

Still, said Schwarz, there are caveats. "In some contexts red is a dangerous thing, and in some contexts red is a nice thing," he said. "If you're walking across a frozen river, blue is a dangerous thing."

Indeed, while Elliot praised the Science study, he said, blue's positive emotional associations are considered less consistent than red's negative ones.

It may also make a difference whether the color dominates a person's view, as on a computer screen, or if it is part of what the person sees. Elliot said that in the Science study, it is possible that brightness or intensity of color had an effect, not just whether it was red or blue.

That may explain why results of some studies have been mixed. Some found no effect from color, but used mostly pastels. One found that students taking midterms did better on blue paper than red, but used a depressing blue and an upbeat red.

But in results that appear to align with the Science study's theory that red makes people more cautious and detail-oriented, Elliot found that people shown red on a test cover before an IQ test did worse than those shown green or a neutral color, and also chose easier questions to answer. IQ tests require more problem-solving, similar to the creative questions that Zhu asked.

Zhu's subjects, asked what red or blue made them think of, mostly said red represented caution, danger and mistakes, while blue symbolized peace and openness. Also, subjects unscrambled anagrams of "avoidance-related" words, like "danger," faster with red backgrounds and unscrambled anagrams of positive "approach-related" words, like "adventure," faster with blue backgrounds.

Besides testing cognitive performance, she also tested responses to advertising, finding that ads stressing "avoidance" qualities, like cavity prevention, or product details, appealed more on red backgrounds, while ads stressing optimistic qualities, like "tooth whitening," or using creative designs, appealed more on blue.

Interestingly, when different participants were asked whether they thought they would do better with red or blue, more people said blue for both detail-oriented and creative tasks. Maybe, Zhu said, that is because more people prefer blue to red.

The study, she cautioned, did not involve different cultures, like China, where red symbolizes prosperity and luck. And it said nothing about mixing red and blue to make purple.

Also, Schwarz said, color effects can be outweighed by clear instructions - to be accurate or creative in a task - so color means more when a project can be approached either way.


Finding Focus

A different large study conducted using data collected from TestMyBrain.org and published in Psychological Science found yet another unexpected boon for aging brains: Sustained attention tends to improve over time, ultimately peaking in the mid-40s.

Led by researchers Francesca C. Fortenbaugh, Joseph DeGutis, and Michael S. Esterman at the Boston Attention and Learning Laboratory at the VA Boston Healthcare System, this study tested sustained attention across 10,430 adults using a specialized task for identifying individual differences in people’s ability to focus on a single task over 4 minutes.

“While younger adults may excel in the speed and flexibility of information processing, adults approaching their mid-years may have the greatest capacity to remain focused,” DeGutis said in a statement. “One current hypothesis is that compared to younger adults, adults in their mid-years mind-wander less, leading to better sustained attention performance.”

“This sample was larger than in all previous efforts to model changes in sustained-attention performance during development, aging, or across the life span combined, which allowed us to more precisely model transition periods in performance across the life span using segmented linear regression,” the researchers explain.

Sustained attention, or the ability to concentrate on a task for an extended period of time, underlies several important cognitive processes, including learning, perception, and memory. Importantly, lapses in attention can lead to serious problems ranging from difficulty at work to an increased risk of car accidents. But measuring attention across individuals is itself a challenge attention fluctuates, sometimes dramatically, from moment to moment.

To accurately measure an individual’s overall concentration abilities, the team used a new tool they developed: the gradual-onset continuous performance task (gradCPT). Participants were shown a series of grayscale photographs of 10 city scenes and 10 mountain scenes. One photograph gradually transitioned into the next every 800 milliseconds, so that as one image slowly faded, a new image steadily took its place. The effect was similar to a crossfade transition from a movie, with one scene slowly dissolving into the next one.

A nearly equal ratio of male and female participants (5,027 males and 5,403 females) between 10 and 70 years old completed the gradCPT on the TestMyBrain.org website between March and September of 2014. Most participants found their way to the website through search engines or social media sites. The participants were told to press the space bar key whenever they saw a city scene, but to withhold a response when the image was a mountain scene.

The goal of the gradCPT was to create a task that required frequent responses from participants while having a relatively low cognitive demand. Identifying the difference between the two scenes was easy, but carefully attending to the transitions repeatedly became challenging over time.

By analyzing mean reaction time, reaction time variability, hits, misses, discrimination ability, and criterion (a measure of strategy or willingness to respond in the case of uncertainty), the researchers were able to tease apart the changes in sustained attention across the lifespan. From ages 10 through 16, gains in both reaction times and discrimination ability were extremely large. After age 16, gains in these skills were much smaller until they peaked around age 43.

A factor analysis of the results suggests that people also begin to use different cognitive strategies as they age. Younger individuals demonstrated faster reaction times (due to either superior information-processing speed or more liberal response strategy), whereas older individuals showed a slower, more cautious strategy and evidence that they made more adjustments after a mistake.

In particular, Fortenbaugh and colleagues calculated the degree to which individuals slowed down their responses following an incorrect response. This phenomenon, referred to as “post-error slowing,” is thought to reflect reactivity to making errors essentially, it is the cognitive “Oops! Why did I do that?” after a wrong answer. Results of the study showed that post-error slowing consistently increased with age (3.5 ms per year), indicating that older adults engage in more self-monitoring after an error.

“While young adults may surpass people of other ages in the speed and flexibility of information processing, and older adults may possess the most stored knowledge regarding the world, we found that middle-aged adults have the greatest capacity to remain attentive,” the researchers conclude.


A simple reaction test involves only one stimulus and one response. An experimental psychologist might test simple reaction times by sounding a buzzer, which would be the stimulus, and instructing a person to press a button whenever he hears it, which would be the response. Simple reaction time improves from childhood until the late 20s. After the late 20s, reaction times increase, but very slowly, until people reach their early fifties. As people reach their late sixties and seventies, reaction times increase markedly.

Men and women differ in their reaction times. As might be expected, men are faster, but women make fewer errors during the learning phase. After the task has been learned, males make the same number of errors as women, but their reaction times remain faster. As women age, their reaction times increase more rapidly than do those of men.

  • A simple reaction test involves only one stimulus and one response.
  • As might be expected, men are faster, but women make fewer errors during the learning phase.

The Cognitive Upside of Aging

The view that we reach a kind of cognitive “peak” relatively early in life has been pervasive since the time of William James. In 1890, James wrote of the aging “dotard” as incapable of learning new information or even following a conversation. “So much for the permanence of the paths,” James wrote sarcastically in the first volume of The Principles of Psychology. According to a 2014 survey on perceptions of brain health and aging conducted by aging advocacy group AARP, people believed that the brain peaks at age 29 before beginning to deteriorate by age 53.

The world’s population is aging rapidly. According to a 2015 demographic report produced by the Division of Behavioral and Social Research at the National Institute on Aging and the US Census Bureau, “the next 10 years will witness an increase of about 236 million people aged 65 and older throughout the world.”

Although popular culture may perpetuate the notion that it’s all downhill after 30, new research is painting a far more encouraging picture of the aging brain’s capabilities: Rather than taking a nosedive, many cognitive skills continue to improve long after 30, with some skills peaking as late as our 60s and 70s.

In some respects, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow may have been ahead of his time with his insights on how aging has its own advantages: “For age is opportunity no less / than youth itself, though in another dress, / and as the evening twilight fades away / the sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”

The Internet is now allowing researchers to study cognition across thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of participants of every age. The ability to leverage data collected from several thousand participants, rather than only the usual few dozen or few hundred, is enabling researchers to track the development of different cognitive skills across the lifespan with increasing accuracy. And the results of these massive new studies are bringing to light some surprising — and perhaps heartening — findings about the aging brain.

Although many cognitive skills do peak in the first few decades of life, people may be interested to learn that there are also many important abilities that hit their high points much later. Rather than a simple curve or U-shape, new research is showing that the cognitive landscape is filled with a shifting array of highs and lows.


520 Psychiatry & Psychology Research Topics to Investigate in 2021

Have you ever wondered why everyone has a unique set of character traits? What is the connection between brain function and people’s behavior? How do we memorize things or make decisions?

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These are quite intriguing and puzzling questions, right? A science that will answer them is psychology. It’s a multi-faceted study of the human mind and behavior. It investigates the effect of various factors on one’s identity.

Another science that explores people’s mental health is psychiatry. But what’s the difference between these two branches? Basically, psychiatrists are people with a medical degree. They treat mental illnesses by prescribing medications. In contrast, psychologists use talk therapy to treat their patients. Are you searching for outstanding psychiatry and psychology research topics? Continue reading— our custom writing team have compiled the best ones for you!


Growth hormone, athletic performance, and aging

Can human growth hormones really benefit aging, like the elusive fountain of youth? In 1513, the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon arrived in Florida to search for the fountain of youth. If he got any benefit from his quest, it was due to the exercise involved in the search.

Few men today believe in miraculous waters, but many, it seems, believe in the syringe of youth. Instead of drinking rejuvenating waters, they inject human growth hormone to slow the tick of the clock. Some are motivated by the claims of the "anti-aging" movement, others by the examples of young athletes seeking a competitive edge. Like Ponce de Len, the athletes still get the benefit of exercise, while older men may use growth hormone shots as a substitute for working out. But will growth hormone boost performance or slow aging? And is it safe?

What is human growth hormone?

Growth hormone (GH) is a small protein that is made by the pituitary gland and secreted into the bloodstream. GH production is controlled by a complex set of hormones produced in the hypothalamus of the brain and in the intestinal tract and pancreas.

The pituitary puts out GH in bursts levels rise following exercise, trauma, and sleep. Under normal conditions, more GH is produced at night than during the day. This physiology is complex, but at a minimum, it tells us that sporadic blood tests to measure GH levels are meaningless since high and low levels alternate throughout the day. But scientists who carefully measure overall GH production report that it rises during childhood, peaks during puberty, and declines from middle age onward.

GH acts on many tissues throughout the body. In children and adolescents, it stimulates the growth of bone and cartilage. In people of all ages, GH boosts protein production, promotes the utilization of fat, interferes with the action of insulin, and raises blood sugar levels. GH also raises levels of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1).

Human growth hormone benefits

GH is available as a prescription drug that is administered by injection. GH is indicated for children with GH deficiency and others with very short stature. It is also approved to treat adult GH deficiency — an uncommon condition that almost always develops in conjunction with major problems afflicting the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, or both. The diagnosis of adult GH deficiency depends on special tests that stimulate GH production simple blood tests are useless at best, misleading at worst.

Adults with bona fide GH deficiencies benefit from GH injections. They enjoy protection from fractures, increased muscle mass, improved exercise capacity and energy, and a reduced risk of future heart disease. But there is a price to pay. Up to 30% of patients experience side effects that include fluid retention, joint and muscle pain, carpal tunnel syndrome (pressure on the nerve in the wrist causing hand pain and numbness), and high blood sugar levels.

HGH doping and athletic performance

Adults who are GH deficient get larger muscles, more energy, and improved exercise capacity from replacement therapy. Athletes work hard to build their muscles and enhance performance. Some also turn to GH.

It's not an isolated problem. Despite being banned by the International Olympic Committee, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, and the World Anti-Doping Agency, GH abuse has tainted many sports, including baseball, cycling, and track and field. Competitive athletes who abuse GH risk disqualification and disgrace. What do they gain in return? And do they also risk their health?

Because GH use is banned and athletic performance depends on so many physical, psychological, and competitive factors, scientists have been unable to evaluate GH on the field. But they can conduct randomized clinical trials that administer GH or a placebo to healthy young athletes and then measure body composition, strength, and exercise capacity in the lab.

A team of researchers from California conducted a detailed review of 44 high-quality studies of growth hormone in athletes. The subjects were young (average age 27), lean (average body mass index 24), and physically fit 85% were male. A total of 303 volunteers received GH injections, while 137 received placebo.

After receiving daily injections for an average of 20 days, the subjects who received GH increased their lean body mass (which reflects muscle mass but can also include fluid mass) by an average of 4.6 pounds. That's a big gain — but it did not translate into improved performance. In fact, GH did not produce measurable increases in either strength or exercise capacity. And the subjects who got GH were more likely to retain fluid and experience fatigue than were the volunteers who got the placebo.

If you were a jock in high school or college, you're likely to wince at the memory of your coach barking "no pain, no gain" to spur you on. Today, athletes who use illegal performance-enhancing drugs risk the pain of disqualification without proof of gain.

Human growth hormone and aging

To evaluate the safety and efficacy of GH in healthy older people, a team of researchers reviewed 31 high-quality studies that were completed after 1989. Each of the studies was small, but together they evaluated 220 subjects who received GH and 227 control subjects who did not get the hormone. Two-thirds of the subjects were men their average age was 69, and the typical volunteer was overweight but not obese.

The dosage of GH varied considerably, and the duration of therapy ranged from two to 52 weeks. Still, the varying doses succeeded in boosting levels of IGF-1, which reflects the level of GH, by 88%.

As compared to the subjects who did not get GH, the treated individuals gained an average of 4.6 pounds of lean body mass, and they shed a similar amount of body fat. There were no significant changes in LDL ("bad") cholesterol, HDL ("good") cholesterol, triglycerides, aerobic capacity, bone density, or fasting blood sugar and insulin levels. But GH recipients experienced a high rate of side effects, including fluid retention, joint pain, breast enlargement, and carpal tunnel syndrome. The studies were too short to detect any change in the risk of cancer, but other research suggests an increased risk of cancer in general and prostate cancer in particular.

HGH, or simple diet and exercise?

"Every man desires to live long," wrote Jonathan Swift, "but no man would be old." He was right, but the fountain of youth has proved illusory. GH does not appear to be either safe or effective for young athletes or healthy older men. But that doesn't mean you have to sit back and let Father Time peck away at you. Instead, use the time-tested combination of diet and exercise. Aim for a moderate protein intake of about .36 grams per pound of body weight even big men don't need more than 65 grams (about 2 ounces) a day, though athletes and men recovering from illnesses or surgery might do well with about 20% more. Plan a balanced exercise regimen aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as walking, a day, and be sure to add strength training two to three times a week to build muscle mass and strength. You'll reduce your risk of many chronic illnesses, enhance your vigor and enjoyment of life, and — it's true — slow the tick of the clock.

Image: © porpeller | GettyImages


How Your State of Mind Affects Your Performance

Don, a senior vice president for sales at a global manufacturing company, wakes up late, scrambles to get showered and dressed, has an argument with his teenage daughter over breakfast, then gets stuck in traffic on the way to work and realizes he will be late for his first meeting.

Donna, a marketing executive, wakes at 6 for a quick spin on the exercise bike, takes a moment to stretch and relax, then quickly gets herself ready, dresses and feeds her two kids before walking them to the bus, then catches the train to the office.

Which executive will have a more productive day at work?

That depends on whether Don—who’s had the more difficult morning—is able to manage his state of mind. For 20 years, we’ve worked with leaders in more than 30 countries and across diverse industries to help them understand how state of mind (that is, their moment-to-moment experience of life as generated by their thinking and as expressed by their feelings) can affect their leadership, and to help them manage their respective states of mind, rather than being managed by them.

Two years ago our organization launched a long-term global research initiative to provide quantitative data on the topic. We selected 18 states of mind and surveyed leaders around the world on how often they experience each one, the impact of each on their effectiveness and performance, and what they do to manage their states of mind. To date, we have surveyed and interviewed over 740 leaders.

Below is a chart that lists the percentage of leaders who reported experiencing each of the 18 states of mind often or regularly:

Of the 18 states of mind in the chart, it came as no surprise that 94% of respondents reported that Calm, Happy and Energized (CHE) are the three that drive the greatest levels of effectiveness and performance. As Giglio Del Borgo, a country manager at Experian explains: “If you are energized, without being necessarily too excited about things or euphoric, that energy will transmit into the people working around you.”

The chart clearly shows that most leaders seem able to access CHE states on a regular basis. However, Frustrated, Anxious, Tired and Stressed (FATS) states of mind were also relatively common. And we found that certain factors such as age, gender, organizational level, organizational tenure, span of influence, and type/size of organization, are correlated with similar states of mind, with lower states more prevalent in certain categories of people—including the young, the male, those with less tenure, and those operating at lower organizational levels.

Most leaders reported that FATS states often yield benefits in the short term but are detrimental in the long term – especially to relationships. They also report that it is difficult to shift out of these states of mind when they are consistently present in the organizational culture or environment. Davida Fedeli, a former vice-president of human resources for Western Union Europe, told us: “There were times during the change integration process when I was constantly feeling frustrated because I was second-guessing stakeholder expectations. [But] at the end of the day, I was not getting the results I wanted by continuously staying in that state of mind.”

The leaders who responded to our survey also reported that it is much harder to shift from below the line states of mind to above the line states of mind. As Jim Daniell, COO of Oxfam America, noted, “When you’re stressed and frustrated it is much harder to see the state of mind you are in, and unless you have clear strategies to be aware of it when you are in it and then shift it, you more than likely will cause serious harm to yourself and your organization.”

So how do leaders shift from lower states of mind to higher states of mind and improve their effectiveness and performance? And how can they help other people in their organizations who tend to default to lower states of mind do the same? We’ve consolidated the best practices into four categories:

Thoughts and feelings. Acknowledge your emotions to reduce their intensity. Allow your thoughts to be transient. Visualize positive images to generate positive feelings. Refocus your attention on different stimuli. Journal to find clarity. And engage in meaningful conversations to foster understanding and optimism.

Physiology. Use deep breathing to reduce stress. Stretch to loosen muscles, stimulate blood flow and improve cognitive function. And take breaks to clear the mind, relax the prefrontal cortex and increase contentment.

External environment. Adjust lighting and block noise to generate calm. Listen to music to stimulate reflection. Eliminate clutter to reduce anxiety and improve focus. And spend time in nature to shift perspective.

Health and well-being. Eat a well-balanced diet, stick to an exercise regimen and get adequate sleep to maintain your energy and balance.

Everything in the last category is a must-do. From the others, we recommend choosing the handful of practices that work best for you, then employing them together with consistency.

Don did just that. Realizing the state he was in, he took stock of his anxiety, engaged in deep breathing, visualized having a positive conversation with his daughter, and accepted that he would not change the traffic. He then began to explore how he would manage his lateness and his workload. His state of mind shifted and he felt clear for the first time that day.


Colors may affect performance, study suggests

Trying to improve your performance at work or kick-start that novel you want to write? Maybe it's time to consider the color of your walls, or your screen saver.

If a new study is any guide, the color red can make people's work more accurate, but blue can make them more creative.

In the study, published Thursday in the online edition of Science magazine, researchers at the University of British Columbia conducted tests with 600 participants to see how cognitive performance varies when people see red or blue. Participants performed tasks in which words or images were displayed against red, blue or neutral backgrounds on computer screens.

Red groups did better on tests of recall and attention to detail, like remembering words or checking spelling and punctuation. Blue groups did better on tests requiring invention and imagination: coming up with creative uses for a brick or creating toys from collections of shapes.

"If you're talking about wanting enhanced memory for something like proofreading skills, then a red color should be used," concluded Juliet Zhu, an assistant professor of marketing at the university's business school, who conducted the studies with Ravi Mehta, a doctoral student. For "a brainstorming session for a new product or coming up with a new solution to fight child obesity or teenage smoking, then you should get people into a blue room."

Whether color can color performance or emotions has long fascinated scientists - not to mention advertisers, sports teams and restaurateurs.

Consider the Olympic uniform study, in which anthropologists at Durham University in England found that athletes in the 2004 Olympics who wore red instead of blue in boxing, tae kwon do, Greco-Roman wrestling, and freestyle wrestling won 60 percent of the time. The researchers suggested that red, for athletes, as for animals, subconsciously symbolizes dominance.

Perhaps a similarly primal effect was afoot in a 2008 study led by Andrew Elliot at the University of Rochester, in which men considered photographs of women on red backgrounds or wearing red shirts more attractive, although not necessarily more likable or intelligent.

Then there was the cocktail party study, in which a group of interior designers, architects and corporate color scientists built makeshift bars in red, blue or yellow. They found that more people chose the yellow and red rooms over blue, but blue partygoers stayed longer. Red and yellow guests were more social and active. And while red guests reported feeling hungry and thirsty, yellow guests ate twice as much.

In cognitive realms, experts say colors may affect performance because of the mood they transmit.

"When things go wrong or when you feel that the situation you are in is problematic, you are more likely to pay attention to detail, which helps you with processing tasks but interferes with creative types of things," said Norbert Schwarz, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan. By contrast, "people in a happy mood are more creative and less analytic."

Many people link red to problematic things, like emergencies or mistakes on tests, experts say. Such "associations to red - stop, fire, alarm, warning - can be activated without a person's awareness, and then influence what they are thinking about or doing," said John Bargh, a psychology professor at Yale. "Blue seems a weaker effect than red, but blue skies, blue water are calm and positive, and so that effect makes sense, too."

Still, said Schwarz, there are caveats. "In some contexts red is a dangerous thing, and in some contexts red is a nice thing," he said. "If you're walking across a frozen river, blue is a dangerous thing."

Indeed, while Elliot praised the Science study, he said, blue's positive emotional associations are considered less consistent than red's negative ones.

It may also make a difference whether the color dominates a person's view, as on a computer screen, or if it is part of what the person sees. Elliot said that in the Science study, it is possible that brightness or intensity of color had an effect, not just whether it was red or blue.

That may explain why results of some studies have been mixed. Some found no effect from color, but used mostly pastels. One found that students taking midterms did better on blue paper than red, but used a depressing blue and an upbeat red.

But in results that appear to align with the Science study's theory that red makes people more cautious and detail-oriented, Elliot found that people shown red on a test cover before an IQ test did worse than those shown green or a neutral color, and also chose easier questions to answer. IQ tests require more problem-solving, similar to the creative questions that Zhu asked.

Zhu's subjects, asked what red or blue made them think of, mostly said red represented caution, danger and mistakes, while blue symbolized peace and openness. Also, subjects unscrambled anagrams of "avoidance-related" words, like "danger," faster with red backgrounds and unscrambled anagrams of positive "approach-related" words, like "adventure," faster with blue backgrounds.

Besides testing cognitive performance, she also tested responses to advertising, finding that ads stressing "avoidance" qualities, like cavity prevention, or product details, appealed more on red backgrounds, while ads stressing optimistic qualities, like "tooth whitening," or using creative designs, appealed more on blue.

Interestingly, when different participants were asked whether they thought they would do better with red or blue, more people said blue for both detail-oriented and creative tasks. Maybe, Zhu said, that is because more people prefer blue to red.

The study, she cautioned, did not involve different cultures, like China, where red symbolizes prosperity and luck. And it said nothing about mixing red and blue to make purple.

Also, Schwarz said, color effects can be outweighed by clear instructions - to be accurate or creative in a task - so color means more when a project can be approached either way.


A simple reaction test involves only one stimulus and one response. An experimental psychologist might test simple reaction times by sounding a buzzer, which would be the stimulus, and instructing a person to press a button whenever he hears it, which would be the response. Simple reaction time improves from childhood until the late 20s. After the late 20s, reaction times increase, but very slowly, until people reach their early fifties. As people reach their late sixties and seventies, reaction times increase markedly.

Men and women differ in their reaction times. As might be expected, men are faster, but women make fewer errors during the learning phase. After the task has been learned, males make the same number of errors as women, but their reaction times remain faster. As women age, their reaction times increase more rapidly than do those of men.

  • A simple reaction test involves only one stimulus and one response.
  • As might be expected, men are faster, but women make fewer errors during the learning phase.

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The Cognitive Upside of Aging

The view that we reach a kind of cognitive “peak” relatively early in life has been pervasive since the time of William James. In 1890, James wrote of the aging “dotard” as incapable of learning new information or even following a conversation. “So much for the permanence of the paths,” James wrote sarcastically in the first volume of The Principles of Psychology. According to a 2014 survey on perceptions of brain health and aging conducted by aging advocacy group AARP, people believed that the brain peaks at age 29 before beginning to deteriorate by age 53.

The world’s population is aging rapidly. According to a 2015 demographic report produced by the Division of Behavioral and Social Research at the National Institute on Aging and the US Census Bureau, “the next 10 years will witness an increase of about 236 million people aged 65 and older throughout the world.”

Although popular culture may perpetuate the notion that it’s all downhill after 30, new research is painting a far more encouraging picture of the aging brain’s capabilities: Rather than taking a nosedive, many cognitive skills continue to improve long after 30, with some skills peaking as late as our 60s and 70s.

In some respects, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow may have been ahead of his time with his insights on how aging has its own advantages: “For age is opportunity no less / than youth itself, though in another dress, / and as the evening twilight fades away / the sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”

The Internet is now allowing researchers to study cognition across thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of participants of every age. The ability to leverage data collected from several thousand participants, rather than only the usual few dozen or few hundred, is enabling researchers to track the development of different cognitive skills across the lifespan with increasing accuracy. And the results of these massive new studies are bringing to light some surprising — and perhaps heartening — findings about the aging brain.

Although many cognitive skills do peak in the first few decades of life, people may be interested to learn that there are also many important abilities that hit their high points much later. Rather than a simple curve or U-shape, new research is showing that the cognitive landscape is filled with a shifting array of highs and lows.


Stereotypes of Aging: Their Effects on the Health of Older Adults

The purpose of this review is to present findings on the effects of stereotypes of aging on health outcomes related to older adults, such as physical and mental functioning (specifically) and overall well-being and perceived quality of life (more broadly). This review shows that both positive and negative stereotypes of aging can have enabling and constraining effects on the actions, performance, decisions, attitudes, and, consequently, holistic health of an older adult. This review further highlights a variety of limitations in stereotype research in aging contexts, including a lack of qualitative studies focusing on older adult perspectives and the fluctuating definition of what constitutes “good health” during older age.

1. Introduction

Aging is a highly individualized and complex process yet it continues to be stereotyped, especially in Western cultures. Stereotypes about a particular group play a powerful role in shaping how we think about and interact with individuals, as well as how individuals within the stereotyped group see themselves [1].

Stereotypes are unchallenged myths or overstated beliefs associated with a category which are widespread and entrenched in verbal, written, and visual contexts within society [2]. Stereotypes of aging include assumptions and generalizations about how people at or over a certain age should behave, and what they are likely to experience, without regard for individual differences or unique circumstances [3].

Stereotypes of aging in contemporary culture, particularly North America, are primarily negative, depicting later life as a time of ill health, loneliness, dependency, and poor physical and mental functioning [1, 3]. However, stereotypes of ageing can also be positive (e.g., healthy, wealthy, and wise) or neutral and they are continually changing over time and across contexts [3–5]. Views of old age, and the perceptions older adults hold of themselves, are complex, multidimensional, and dynamic [5]. In other words, stereotypes of aging are social constructs that are culturally and historically situated, as well as individually interpreted.

Notably, any stereotype of aging (including those that equate aging with frailty and decline, or later life with health and affluence) has the potential to reinforce ageism (i.e., social oppression based on age [6, 7]) because they position ill health in old age as undesirable [8, 9] and they do not acknowledge the vast diversity among older adults [3]. The terms “older adults,” “older people,” “older individuals,” “old age,” “the elderly,” or “seniors” have been used interchangeably in academic literature, policy, and popular press to refer to people who are aged 55 years or older. Therefore, although we adopt the general term “older adults” in this review, we recognize the extensive heterogeneity among this group of people. Given this diversity, it is important to acknowledge from the outset that older adults are unlikely to respond to stereotypes as a single entity.

The purpose of this review is to report findings on the effects of stereotypes of aging on health outcomes related to older adults, such as physical and mental functioning (specifically) and overall well-being and perceived quality of life (more broadly). The health outcome of focus in each study, or group of studies, has been italicized as the literature is discussed below.

This review first briefly summarizes how stereotypes work to affect health. Then, the literature is organized in terms of the theory and method underpinning each group of studies, with particular focus on stereotype activation experiments. The initial discussion will focus primarily (although not exclusively) on the effect of negative stereotypes, while the latter will focus on the effects of positive stereotypes. In doing so, this review highlights that both positive and negative stereotypes of aging can simultaneously have enabling and constraining effects on the actions, performance, decisions, attitudes, and, consequently, holistic health of an older adult.

This review will also highlight a variety of limitations in stereotype research in aging contexts, including a lack of qualitative studies focusing on older adult perspectives and the fluctuating definition of what constitutes “good health” during older age. Increasing our awareness of the multiple effects of stereotypes on individual health outcomes in older adults, and the assumptions embedded in research findings, can promote changes in individual and societal attitudes and behaviors, as well as policy and professional infrastructures that benefit older adults.

2. How Stereotypes Work to Affect Health

While physical and cognitive declines in later life can be explained in physiological terms, psychosocial and sociocultural factors also play a key role in this process. Research in mainstream gerontology and psychology has demonstrated the effects of stereotypes of aging on the health of older people however, the mechanisms by which this occurs is constantly debated within and across disciplines [10–13]. Researchers have identified numerous theories of how stereotypes of aging impact older adults, primarily internalization/stereotype embodiment, stereotype threat, downward social comparison/resilience, and (more recently) stereotype boost and upward social comparison/role models [14–16]. Given the range of theories used to explain how stereotypes work to affect health, knowing which theory is driving each study is necessary so that their findings can be clearly understood.

Within these frameworks, experimental studies involving stereotype activation have shown that both implicit (subtle/subconscious) and explicit (conscious) negative age stereotyping can have similar detrimental effects on the performance of older people in physical and mental tasks [16, 17]. In 2012, Meisner [17] conducted a meta-analysis to compare the strength of positive versus negative age stereotyping effects on behavioral outcomes in older adults. He found, regardless of the type of prime awareness, discipline of study, method, or participant group, that negative age priming elicited a stronger effect (of almost three times larger) on the performance of older individuals during physical and mental tasks than did positive age priming [17]. However, a major limitation of this analysis was that most of the studies included in the review came from Levy’s lab. Other reviews, such as Hess et al. [18], found that research on implicit stereotypes has shown that emphasizing positive stereotypes and images of aging can weaken the negative influences of a situation on the behavior of older adults. For example, Hess et al. [19] compared implicit and explicit priming of aging stereotypes on older adults’ memory performance and found that those primed implicitly showed significant differences in memory, with positive primes showing greater recall than negative primes. To highlight the heightened effect of domain-specific stereotypes on cognitive and physical outcomes in older adults, Levy and Leifheit-Limson [20, page 230] found that when the age stereotype matched the outcome domain there was a stronger effect on performance, suggesting that when stereotype matching occurs “it is more likely to generate expectations that become self-fulfilling prophecies.” They called this the stereotype-matching effect [20, 21].

To complicate and extend these findings, however, other studies have shown that explicit positive aging stereotypes can have constraining effects on older people’s attitudes and health behavior and that negative aging stereotypes can be resisted by older adults resulting in enabling effects such as feelings of personal empowerment and associated health benefits [8, 15, 22, 23].

Notably, studies on the effects of stereotypes on the health of older individuals typically define health in old age in terms of biomedical and psychosocial models of “successful aging,” with indicators of “good health” including low levels (or absence) of disease and disease-related disability, high levels of physical and cognitive functioning, continued social and active engagement in life, and overall contentment, mental health, and the ability to adjust to changes [8]. Nevertheless, the definition of what constitutes “good health” in older age varies across studies. Collectively, research on this topic highlights the complexity in effects of stereotypes on the health of older individuals there is no conventional pattern as to how stereotypes are internalized into self-stereotypes and/or perceptions of oneself as an older adult, nor the mechanisms underlying this process.

3. Effects of Negative Stereotypes

Most studies on stereotypes of aging focus on the constraining effects of negative stereotypes for an older adult’s health and ways to minimize/counteract these effects [1]. The findings from stereotype activation experiments and longitudinal studies have been useful in this regard [24].

3.1. Stereotype Activation and Longitudinal Studies
3.1.1. Implicit Priming of Stereotypes of Aging (and Stereotype Embodiment/Internalization)

Results from numerous experimental studies conducted by Levy and colleagues to test memory, hand writing skills, and walking ability indicated that subliminal exposure to negative age stereotypes can negatively affect (or lead to no changes in) performance in these domains in older adults, while implicit priming with positive stereotypes of aging (such as wise and sage) tended to improve performance [25–27]. For example, in Levy’s innovative 1996 study, it was shown that older adults who were implicitly primed with negative aging stereotype words (e.g., senile, dependent, and incompetent) and then asked to undertake memory tasks performed worse than the positively primed group, regardless of age, gender, level of education, previous computer use, mood, and location of residence [27]. Also, Levy et al. [28] and Levy et al. [29] found that aging self-stereotypes had a direct impact on physiological function, with negative aging stereotype (subliminal) primes increasing cardiovascular stress in white and African American older individuals, respectively, before and after mental challenges, such as word and math tests.

Moreover, the influence of stereotypes of aging on the health of older individuals can vary across cultures. For example, using a cross-cultural approach, Levy and Langer [30] conducted a comparative study and found that American hearing older adults held the least positive views of the aging process when compared to American deaf older adults and Chinese older adults. Accordingly, the American hearing group performed the worst in memory tasks, followed by the American deaf, and the Chinese group performed the best. However, Yoon et al. [31] did not replicate these findings in their study of Chinese Canadians and Anglophone Canadians because the differences in memory were specific to particular types of memory tests. They also did not conclude that the relationship between culture and aging was mediated by positive attitudes about aging. In spite of these differences, both Levy and Langer and Yoon studies found smaller age differences in those groups who held more positive beliefs about aging. While cross-cultural research regarding stereotypes has shown more positive stereotypes are held in European and Asian cultures, this research has also highlighted that the same number and contexts of negative age stereotypes (i.e., cognitive incompetence) exist in these cultures, similar to Western cultures [32].

Building on Levy’s body of work, numerous studies have shown that implicit priming of negative age stereotypes can have adverse effects on physical and cognitive functioning. For example, Auman et al. [33] found stereotype related increases in anxiety, skin conductance, and blood pressure among a sample of middle-aged and older men with hypertension (at an outpatient program) when the prime focused on sickness, helplessness, and dependence. A key finding from this study was that the fear of being perceived as sick (as described in the negative stereotype prime) could actually discourage people from seeking medical assistance, indicating that the concept of stereotype threat (discussed below) is working in conjunction with the internalization of negative stereotypes. In contrast to Levy’s [27] findings, however, Stein et al. [34] found that priming with a positive age stereotype did not improve memory performance for a group of older adults. Stein et al. used a photo recall task and a dot location task to measure the memory performance of 60 older adults before and after they were implicitly primed with a negative age stereotype, a positive age stereotype, or neutral primes. It was found that memory performance was undermined among those older adults who were negatively primed and unaware of the primes.

In addition to these short-term effects on performance, Levy et al. [35] showed that aging self-stereotypes can influence older individuals’ will-to-live. In this study on responses to hypothetical medical situations, older adults who were subconsciously exposed to negative stereotype primes were less likely to accept medical treatment that could prolong their life. In 2006, Levy et al. [36] examined the age stereotypes of 546 community dwelling adults aged 70–96 years and found that those who held more negative and externally (i.e., physical appearance)-related age stereotypes showed greatest hearing loss 36 months after the initial test. Although this study did not use implicit priming, the authors speculated that such findings could have health-behavior consequences, such as older adults not seeking assistance from health professionals due to their belief that hearing loss is a normal and inevitable part of the aging process [36].

Finally, given the limitations of controlled settings in the above studies, more recent research by Levy and colleagues aimed to determine if everyday encounters with negative stereotypes across one’s lifetime are associated with cognitive outcomes [37]. They found that, over a 38-year period, individuals with more negative age stereotypes showed significantly worse memory performance compared to those who held less negative age stereotypes and emphasized the robust impact self-relevance has on the effects of stereotypes [37]. This finding supports the view that because older adults are often exposed to negative stereotyping, through everyday interactions in the community and health care settings, this constant exposure may serve as a negative prime which can activate internalized negative age stereotypes [38]. To understand how these internal mechanisms operate alongside external factors in the environment, researchers have drawn on stereotype threat theory with a focus on the effects of explicitly activating negative stereotypes of aging. Stereotype threat theory proposes that presenting familiar negative stereotypes associated with a certain group threatens this group into a scenario where they fear reaffirming these negative depictions [39–42].

3.1.2. Explicit Priming of Stereotypes of Aging (and Stereotype Threat)

Studies using explicit (rather than implicit) priming techniques have found mostly similar (yet some conflicting) effects of aging stereotypes on physical and cognitive performance, as shown below. Most studies underpinned by stereotype threat theory have examined memory or cognitive performance of older adults [12]. The relationship between stereotype threat and regressions in memory performance has been found among older adults who were explicitly primed with a negative stereotype (in the way the task was framed) [43–45], especially among those who were greatly invested in their memory ability or had high levels of education [46–48]. Stereotype threat has also been found to worsen older adults’ math performance [49] and general cognitive ability [50].

A meta-analysis by Horton and colleagues [16] on the impact of stereotype threat on older adults’ performance on memory tasks found an overall weighted effect size (i.e., the magnitude of change due to experimental manipulation) of 0.38 (with those exposed to negative stereotype primes in the studies reviewed performing the worst on tasks). However, Horton et al. [16] acknowledged that their review did not include unpublished studies, such as master and doctoral theses, and they cite two such studies that did not find an effect on cognitive performance among older adults exposed to stereotype threat.

A more recent meta-analysis of age-based stereotype threat and effects on performance among older people (average 69.5 years) by Lamont et al. [51] included 22 published and 10 unpublished articles. They found a significant, yet small-to-medium, effect size of 0.28 (with older adults, regardless of age and gender, memory and cognitive performance were negatively affected by age-based stereotype threat). Lamont et al. also revealed that older adults were less affected by age-based stereotype threat when fact-based (rather than stereotype-based) manipulations are used (

) and when performance is tested using cognitive (rather than physical) tasks (

). The inclusion of unpublished studies in this review allowed for a comprehensive analysis of age-based stereotype threat effects which stresses that this threat is a real problem which older people face, especially within formal test contexts. Also, Hess et al. [19], in their comparison of the effects of implicit and explicit priming of aging stereotypes, found that with subtle (as opposed to highly obvious) explicit primes older adults were able to offset the impact of negative stereotypes on memory performance, indicating a type of resilience to the effect of negative stereotypes on performance (a finding that supports resilience theory, discussed below).

Scholl and Sabat [52] argue that to decrease the impact of stereotype threat individuals need to experience a sense of perceived control over the situation which can be achieved by giving older individuals autonomy over personal decisions regarding their health, aiding in the development of more internal health locus of control and motivation to seek out preventative health measures. In addition, given the finding that the effect of stereotype threat (and the associated level of anxiety) is heightened when a person is being tested in a domain where their ability in that area is deeply important to them, “it is vital that practitioners have in-depth knowledge of their clients so as to understand which of their attributes are, and always have been, valued greatly” [52, page 123].

In terms of broader health outcomes related to stereotype threat, Coudin and Alexopoulos [53] examined the effects of explicit negative stereotype activation (i.e., reading a text) on French older adults’ self-reported loneliness, risk-taking, subjective health, and help-seeking behavior and found that such activation had harmful effects on participants’ self-evaluation and functioning, which may consequently lead to increased dependency. This study highlighted the role of interpersonal and situational factors for inducing dependency among older adults. In support, Burgess et al. [39, page S169] argued that “by recognizing and understanding the factors that can trigger stereotype threat and understanding its consequences in medical settings, providers can prevent it from occurring or ameliorate its consequences for patient behavior and outcomes.”

In addition to these short-term performance effects of explicit negative stereotyping, repeated exposure to stereotype threat can result in disengagement from domains that are perceived as threatening to one’s self-esteem, which in the longer term can lead to disidentifcation (i.e., avoiding any activities that may result in reaffirming negative stereotypes) [1, 53]. In the case of older adults, this may involve removing themselves from physical and mental activities because they “no longer view the domain as central to their identity and, as a result, stop expending effort in this domain [39, page S169],” which can have a negative effect on their holistic health [54].

On the other hand (and in line with the Hess et al. [19] study cited above), Horton et al. [40] suggested that some older adults may not be affected by negative stereotypes. This study tested 99 older adults on six dependent measures, namely, memory recall, reaction time, grip strength, flexibility, walking speed, and self-concept. The findings indicated that older adults were affected by the stereotype intervention, but “they suffered no performance decrements on the main dependent measures [40, page 353].” With regard to memory performance, these findings contrast the meta-analysis performed previously by Horton et al. [16] detailed above. Horton et al. [40] note that the specific nature of the participants in their 2010 study (healthy, well educated, and living in a popular retirement locality in Canada) highlights the possibility that certain older adults may be resistant to the potential threat of negative stereotypes of aging. This study showed the importance of understanding how individual older adults respond differently to stereotypes, as well as how they individually perceive their own aging.

3.2. Downward Social Comparison (and Resilience Theory)

From a sociological and qualitative perspective, Dionigi and colleagues have found downward social comparison to be typical amongst highly active older adults. Older athletes tend to express a very negative perception of old age or “other” older adults, despite having positive self-perceptions of their own aging [4]. Highly active older adults have been shown to express a desire to maintain physical and mental activity to avoid becoming “old” as they stereotypically understand it (i.e., frail, dependent on others, and diseased) [4, 8]. On one hand, this finding represents an active resistance to aging stereotypes, which can be personally empowering, but on the other hand it reinforces ageism and the individual (and cultural) fear of ill health in old age by positioning ill health in old age as undesirable or irrational, rather than a natural process [4, 23].

From a psychosocial perspective, when explaining the acquisition of self-stereotypes of aging, Levy [55] describes the above as the process of identifying oneself as “old” and argues that the more negative the aging stereotypes one holds, the more resistant one is to accepting themselves as old. This resistance could be a form of denial of the physiological realities of the aging process, which could be maladaptive to overall health and a sense of identity in later life [4, 56]. The important message here is that there is much diversity and complexity in older adults’ perceptions and internalization of aging stereotypes, which can affect an individual’s health in multiple ways [15].

3.3. Emerging Qualitative Research Findings

Qualitative research findings highlight the complexity inherent in trying to make sense of multidimensional concepts such as perceptions and stereotypes of aging. For example, research by Dionigi et al. [8] found that Canadian women aged 75 years and over who were not physically active expressed more positive attitudes towards their own aging and the term “old” compared to the women in the sample who were highly physically active. In other words, even though these women held high expectations and positive views of their own aging and positive stereotypes of old age, it did not mean they were more likely to engage in preventative health behaviors, such as physical activity, in later life. Recently, there has been a call for a more culturally relevant, domain-specific, gender-specific, multidirectional, and multidimensional perspective of aging experiences, feelings, and perceptions [5, 24, 57–60]. With regard to gender differences, a quantitative study by Schafer and Shippee [58] found that feeling older led to more negative views about cognitive aging among women, but not men, aged 55 years and over. More studies on differences between men and women with regard to the effects of stereotypes on health outcomes are needed.

In 2014, Miche et al. [24] used an open-ended, diary approach with 225 men and women (aged 70–88 years) about age-related experiences. They highlighted that content-based, social-cognitive, and social-emotional age-related changes were more important for participants’ overall well-being than functional age-related changes. Similarly, a review by Diehl et al. [57] argued that long term health benefits among older people will only be reached if individuals are given the opportunity to take active control of their own lives and develop a clear understanding of their aging process. Diehl et al. developed a conceptual model that allows researchers to create individual need profiles that can be used for intervention and translational research targeting optimal health in later life. These findings question the emphasis in gerontology on the relationship between functional ability and health in later life. They highlight the need to broaden understandings of what constitutes health in old age with particular emphasis on how older individuals define “good health” and “successful aging” in their terms [8].

4. Effects of Positive Stereotypes

While it has been shown that implicit and explicit activation of negative age stereotypes can negatively impact older adults’ short-term performance in physical and cognitive domains, and potential long-term health outcomes (i.e., health-related behaviors), the effects of positive stereotypes of aging appear more complicated and are comparatively underresearched. The following review will focus on findings that have emerged from experimental studies primarily related to the effects of positive stereotypes of aging on the health of older adults.

4.1. Implicit Priming of Positive Stereotypes of Aging (and Internalization)

Preliminary evidence suggests that implicit positive stereotype primes can improve performance in older individuals [16]. For example, many of Levy and colleagues’ implicit priming studies reviewed in previous sections revealed that the positively primed group improved their performance in the task being measured, such as memory [19, 27], swing time, and balance speed associated with walking [25], or had no change in their performance after being primed, such as a muted cardiovascular response to cognitive challenges [28]. The latter finding led to the assumption that positive primes may act as a buffer to the effects of negative stereotypes [28].

In addition, Levy et al. [35] found in their hypothetical will-to-live study that those who were exposed to positive aging stereotypes were more likely to accept the life-prolonging medical intervention. However, in contrast to Levy’s findings on memory [27], it was mentioned earlier that Stein et al. [34] found that older individual’s memory performance did not improve after they were primed with a positive age stereotype. Therefore, it cannot be assumed that implicit positive primes will always lead to improved performance in older adults. Nevertheless, researchers have begun to examine if experimentally making people feel younger will result in improvements in physical and mental performance.

4.2. Explicit Priming of Positive Stereotypes of Aging (and Stereotype Boost)

Experimental studies on the potential for stereotype boost effects with older adults emerged in 2013. Swift et al. [61] examined the performance of older adults in a domain where they are stereotyped more favorably than younger people (via crossword puzzles). They found that, compared with the control condition, the enhancing social comparison boosted performance among the older adults [61].

Although explicitly making people feel favorable compared to younger people in experimental studies has shown short-term improvements in physical [62] and cognitive [61] tasks, respectively, longer-term effects of explicit positive stereotypes in the daily lives of older adults (such as media messages depicting “healthy, active, and happy” older people) and the effects of dominant “successful aging” discourses (found in academic literature and popular press) are less well known. Making upward, rather than downward, social comparisons has multiple likely effects on the health behaviors of older individuals [63].

4.3. Upward Social Comparison and Role Models

Emerging role model research pertaining to older adults has highlighted the multiple enabling and constraining effects of upward social comparisons on older adults’ attitudes and health-related behaviors [15, 63, 64]. On the one hand, upward social comparisons, such as comparison with authentic older people who are active and healthy, highlight what is possible in later life which can motivate individuals to become more active themselves and counteract the development of negative self-stereotypes of aging [3]. For example, for already moderately active older adults, older sportspeople may inspire them to become even more active [15, 63, 65].

On the other hand, if highly active, healthy older people are perceived as unrealistic representations of what is likely in later life, such representations can intimidate others, produce feelings of guilt and anxiety amongst older adults who cannot or do not want to meet that standard, and discourage people from engaging in certain health-related behaviors [3, 64, 65]. For instance, Kotter-Grühn and Hess [22] provided evidence for the negative effects of positive age stereotypes on healthy older adults (such as feeling older and less satisfied with their aging) when confronted with positive and healthy images and descriptions of people their own age. The fact that Hess et al. [46] found a small effect size (0.13) in an explicit positively primed condition on a memory task with older adults lends support to this argument. These findings question the assumption that explicitly priming older adults with positive stereotypes will have a positive impact on their performance and overall health however, these results remain contentious.

Given these contrasting effects of positive stereotypes of aging, and their potential for positive or negative effects on older individual’s views of their own aging, and consequently their health or health-related practices, more research is needed on how older adults themselves interpret dominant notions of positive aging. This is particularly important in contemporary Western culture because more positive depictions of aging as a period of ongoing activity and health are emerging [4]. While examples of “exceptional” older adults, such as the athletic feats of older sportspeople, “may be effective in altering societal stereotypes and inspiring those in a younger cohort, they could have a very different effect on those in their own peer group [65, page 131].” More studies using in-depth interviews, life histories, and narrative approaches in gerontology and health care may be effective in understanding how older people react to multiple positive and negative stereotypes. This is because a narrative approach to aging makes ordinary, individual life stories explicit, which can work to breakdown generalizations or stereotypes about aging [66].

5. Limitations of Stereotype Research in Aging Contexts

This review of literature on the effects of stereotypes of aging on the health of older adults has highlighted that while valuable knowledge has been gained, such as the finding that both positive and negative stereotypes of aging can be problematic for health, more research in this area is necessary. In particular, the majority of research on this topic (grounded in Levy’s work) tends to express a positive-negative binary, or use positive-neutral-negative examples, of aging stereotypes in studies, which can hide the complexity of the effects of stereotypes on older adults [10]. While Levy’s work has been invaluable in drawing attention to the effects of stereotypes, such an approach tends to assume that older people interpret stereotypes in similar ways which masks the fluidity of age stereotypes [10].

The findings from studies which test older adults’ ability to perform cognitive and/or physical tasks collectively indicate that the testing context, in particular the language used, the expectations set for, and the instructions given to participants in that context, will ultimately influence the results [1, 16]. For example, Hehman and Bugental [67] examined how ageist (patronizing) speech negatively affected older (

, ages 61–98) adults’ performance (relative to younger people) on a cognitive task and increased their cortisol levels. On the other hand, they found that older adults who had more positive interactions and communication with younger people were not affected by the performance decrements resulting from patronizing communication. Hehman and Bugental argue that, “Repeated exposure to patronizing communication may result in elevated basal cortisol levels, which then has negative implications for older adults’ physical, cognitive, and psychological well-being [67, page 558].” Therefore, reliance on such data that measures older adults’ performance is problematic, not only because it provides an inadequate representation of their overall cognitive and/or mental abilities, but also because it can have long-term health implications. This is a major limitation in the interpretation of all stereotype related research within aging populations. Furthermore, researchers, clinicians, or anyone involved in testing older individuals on activities of daily living need to be mindful that “even the subtle cues they give off subconsciously, may be picked up by their participants and ultimately affect how they perform” [16, page 463].

Also, many stereotype activation studies appear to assume that older adults have either a positive or a negative view of aging when in fact both gains and losses are often viewed as part of “healthy aging” in later life [8, 68]. Furthermore, the assumed definition of what constitutes “good health” in old age in the majority of studies on the effects of aging stereotypes is problematic. A single definition of what constitutes good health in old age does not exist in fact, in a recent review of “successful aging” literature, Depp et al. [69] found 28 different working definitions of the term across the 27 studies reviewed and Jylhä argued that “there is no single universally agreed definition or direct measure of ‘health’ or ‘health status’ [70, page 309].”

Moreover, how an older individual defines health may be quite different from (yet just as valid as) how an “expert” defines health [8]. In other words, “…‘health’ belongs to the realm of everyday talk rather than any exact scientific vocabulary [70, page 309].” For instance, Jylhä’s paper on self-rated, subjective health highlighted the importance of integrating both cultural and biological information from biomedical and social science disciplines, as well as the individual’s bodily sensations and feelings, to make sense of how people rate their health. All in all, “aging is a dynamic process involving both decline and opportunities for continued development [71, page 856]” and stereotypes of aging play a powerful role in this process. Therefore, calls have been made for the use of qualitative research to better understand people’s own explanations and accounts of aging and the effects of stereotypes. For example, “Qualitative analyses, inviting people to describe and verbalize their bodily sensations and interpret them in relation to their health status, would help create a new body of information on factors underlying self-rated health [70, page 314].”

Finally, it is important to mention that older adults are often members of multiple stereotyped groups, such as being older, female, and from an ethnic minority or being older, male, and disabled, or being older and from a sexual minority group [72]. Therefore, further research is needed to explore the effects of stereotypes on the health of older adults who belong to more than one stereotyped group. For example, from a psychosocial perspective research could determine if there is a cumulative effect of stereotyping that leads to greater vulnerability or a developed immunity in place that leads to resilience in later life [55]. From a sociological perspective research could examine how intersections of racism, sexism, heterosexism, cultural diversity, and ageism affect the lives of a diverse range of older individuals [73].

6. Summary and Conclusion

In summary, stereotypes of aging are pervasive in our culture and they have been found to influence how older adults see themselves [22, 74–76] how older adults view other older adults (social comparison and beliefs about old age) [8, 15, 22] older adults’ cognitive and physical performances [16, 25, 26, 28, 29, 37, 55, 77] the ability of older adults to recover from disease [78] older adults’ health behaviors, including their decisions to engage in cognitive, social, and physical activity [1, 4, 21, 65, 79] and/or seek medical assistance [33, 35, 53, 80] as well as how older adults are treated by others and society as a whole [1, 3, 4, 7, 81–83].

All of the above outcomes have the potential to affect the holistic health (i.e., mental, physical, social, and emotional well-being) of an older person and ultimately the length and quality of their life. However, to make sense of the studies reporting the complex effects of stereotypes of aging on the health of older individuals, one needs to understand the theoretical underpinnings of the research, the strengths and limitations in the methods used to analyze the effects and recognize the authors’ assumed (and perhaps limiting) understanding of what constitutes good health in older age.

Conflict of Interests

The author declares that there is no conflict of interests regarding the publication of this paper.

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Copyright

Copyright © 2015 Rylee A. Dionigi. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


Puzzle play helps boost learning of important math-related skills

Children who play with puzzles between ages 2 and 4 later develop better spatial skills, a study by University of Chicago researchers has found. Puzzle play was found to be a significant predictor of spatial skill after controlling for differences in parents’ income, education and the overall amount of parent language input.

In examining video recordings of parents interacting with children during everyday activities at home, researchers found children who play with puzzles between 26 and 46 months of age have better spatial skills when assessed at 54 months of age.

“The children who played with puzzles performed better than those who did not, on tasks that assessed their ability to rotate and translate shapes,” said psychologist Susan Levine, a leading expert on mathematics development in young children.

The ability to mentally transform shapes is an important predictor of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) course-taking, degrees and careers in older children. Activities such as early puzzle play may lay the groundwork for the development of this ability, the study found.

Levine, the Stella M. Rowley Professor in Psychology at UChicago, is lead author on a paper, “Early Puzzle Play: A Predictor of Preschoolers’ Spatial Transformation Skill,” published in the current early view issue of Developmental Science.

The study is the first to look at puzzle play in a naturalistic setting. For the research, 53 child-parent pairs from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds participated in a longitudinal study, in which researchers video-recorded parent-child interactions for 90-minute sessions that occurred every four months between 26 and 46 months of age.

The parents were asked to interact with their children as they normally would, and about half of the children in the study were observed playing with puzzles at least once. Higher-income parents tended to engage children with puzzles more frequently. Both boys and girls who played with puzzles had better spatial skills, but boys played with more complicated puzzles than girls, and the parents of boys provided more spatial language during puzzle play and were more engaged in play than the parents of girls.

Boys also performed better than girls on a mental transformation task given at 54 months of age.

“Further study is needed to determine if the puzzle play and the language children hear about spatial concepts is causally related to the development of spatial skills — and to examine why there is a sex difference in the difficulty of the puzzles played with and in the parents’ interactions with boys and girls,” Levine explained. “We are currently conducting a laboratory study in which parents are asked to play with puzzles with their preschool sons and daughters, and the same puzzles are provided to all participants.

“We want to see whether parents provide the same input to boys and girls when the puzzles are of the same difficulty,” Levine said. “In the naturalistic study, parents of boys may have used more spatial language in order to scaffold their performance.”

Alternatively, the difference in parent spatial language and engagement may be related to a societal stereotype that males have better spatial skills. “Our findings suggest that engaging both boys and girls in puzzle play can support the development of an aspect of cognition that has been implicated in success in the STEM disciplines,” Levine said.

Levine was joined in writing the paper by Kristin R. Ratliff, projectdirector for research and development at WPS Publishing Janellen Huttenlocher, the William S. Gray Professor Emeritus in Psychology at UChicago, and Joanna Cannon, New York City Department of Education.

The research on puzzle play is part of a series of studies based on observations in naturalistic settings Levine has led. In previous papers, she and colleagues have shown the importance of using words related to mathematics and spatial concepts in advancing children’s knowledge.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation (Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center) and by the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.


Finding Focus

A different large study conducted using data collected from TestMyBrain.org and published in Psychological Science found yet another unexpected boon for aging brains: Sustained attention tends to improve over time, ultimately peaking in the mid-40s.

Led by researchers Francesca C. Fortenbaugh, Joseph DeGutis, and Michael S. Esterman at the Boston Attention and Learning Laboratory at the VA Boston Healthcare System, this study tested sustained attention across 10,430 adults using a specialized task for identifying individual differences in people’s ability to focus on a single task over 4 minutes.

“While younger adults may excel in the speed and flexibility of information processing, adults approaching their mid-years may have the greatest capacity to remain focused,” DeGutis said in a statement. “One current hypothesis is that compared to younger adults, adults in their mid-years mind-wander less, leading to better sustained attention performance.”

“This sample was larger than in all previous efforts to model changes in sustained-attention performance during development, aging, or across the life span combined, which allowed us to more precisely model transition periods in performance across the life span using segmented linear regression,” the researchers explain.

Sustained attention, or the ability to concentrate on a task for an extended period of time, underlies several important cognitive processes, including learning, perception, and memory. Importantly, lapses in attention can lead to serious problems ranging from difficulty at work to an increased risk of car accidents. But measuring attention across individuals is itself a challenge attention fluctuates, sometimes dramatically, from moment to moment.

To accurately measure an individual’s overall concentration abilities, the team used a new tool they developed: the gradual-onset continuous performance task (gradCPT). Participants were shown a series of grayscale photographs of 10 city scenes and 10 mountain scenes. One photograph gradually transitioned into the next every 800 milliseconds, so that as one image slowly faded, a new image steadily took its place. The effect was similar to a crossfade transition from a movie, with one scene slowly dissolving into the next one.

A nearly equal ratio of male and female participants (5,027 males and 5,403 females) between 10 and 70 years old completed the gradCPT on the TestMyBrain.org website between March and September of 2014. Most participants found their way to the website through search engines or social media sites. The participants were told to press the space bar key whenever they saw a city scene, but to withhold a response when the image was a mountain scene.

The goal of the gradCPT was to create a task that required frequent responses from participants while having a relatively low cognitive demand. Identifying the difference between the two scenes was easy, but carefully attending to the transitions repeatedly became challenging over time.

By analyzing mean reaction time, reaction time variability, hits, misses, discrimination ability, and criterion (a measure of strategy or willingness to respond in the case of uncertainty), the researchers were able to tease apart the changes in sustained attention across the lifespan. From ages 10 through 16, gains in both reaction times and discrimination ability were extremely large. After age 16, gains in these skills were much smaller until they peaked around age 43.

A factor analysis of the results suggests that people also begin to use different cognitive strategies as they age. Younger individuals demonstrated faster reaction times (due to either superior information-processing speed or more liberal response strategy), whereas older individuals showed a slower, more cautious strategy and evidence that they made more adjustments after a mistake.

In particular, Fortenbaugh and colleagues calculated the degree to which individuals slowed down their responses following an incorrect response. This phenomenon, referred to as “post-error slowing,” is thought to reflect reactivity to making errors essentially, it is the cognitive “Oops! Why did I do that?” after a wrong answer. Results of the study showed that post-error slowing consistently increased with age (3.5 ms per year), indicating that older adults engage in more self-monitoring after an error.

“While young adults may surpass people of other ages in the speed and flexibility of information processing, and older adults may possess the most stored knowledge regarding the world, we found that middle-aged adults have the greatest capacity to remain attentive,” the researchers conclude.