The world is full of stereotypes. Some are born from over-generalized kernels of truth, while others are more like misguided myths gone wild. And, at some point in our lives, we’ve all experienced the effects of stereotyping.

One of the most pervasive stereotypes in modern America is that of the frail older adult. Once a person ages beyond the apex of the proverbial hill, it’s almost as if society collectively gives them a shove, sending them tumbling down the other side, towards death. Advocates for the elderly have been fighting against this perception for decades.

Overturning this stereotype is about more than just changing minds, it could also be an effective way to lessen the damaging economic and health care effects of America’s rapidly aging population. New research from the Yale School of Public Health has found that encountering positive messages about aging can enhance the mental and physical well-being of older individuals, potentially enabling them to maintain their independence for longer.

Changing minds could change lives

Reversing ingrained stereotypes about aging—even a little bit—can be a tricky endeavor, as lead researcher Becca Levy, associate professor and director of the Social and Behavioral Science Division at Yale, and her team found out. “The challenge we had in this study was to enable the participants to overcome the negative age stereotypes which they acquire from society, as in everyday conversations and television comedies,” Levy says in a Yale press release.

Previous studies led by Levy have shown how negative age stereotypes can have a damaging effect on older adults’ physical health. This time, she wanted to see whether the process worked in reverse.

To help older adults overcome negative thought patterns about their age, scientists divided 100 individuals whose average age was 81 years old up into several different groups. One group was instructed to write about aging adults who were able to maintain lively, active lifestyles. Another group was placed in front of a computer screen that periodically flashed positive words such as “creative” and “spry” at speeds that were slow enough for participants’ eyes to recognize them, but too fast for their brains to fully process—a form of subliminal messaging.

The hope was that, by altering participants’ perceptions about aging in a subtle (yet positive) way by exposing them to subliminal messaging on the computer screens, the older adults would feel better about themselves and be able to more effectively perform everyday activities.

The researchers were not disappointed. By the end of a three week period, people in the subliminal messaging group had better balance and walking abilities, and could sit down and stand up from a chair more easily, while the older adults who wrote essays or did nothing did not experience any enhanced mobility.

Help for an aging America

Of course, unraveling negative stereotypes about aging won’t work miracles for the millions of older people struggling with serious illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and dementia.

But the Yale study does demonstrate the power that taking a positive approach to the aging process can have on healthy older adults. A senior who is steadier on their feet is less likely to fall—the number one cause of injurious death in the elderly. A person who can get in and out of a chair on their own is more likely to be able to age-in-place in their own home.

The best part about these findings is that all of us can help foster an environment of esteem and kindness towards the elders in our community. Treating aging adults with respect and valuing their contributions to society is something that can provide countless benefits to members of all generations.