Home > Aging > I’m Gettin’ Me Mallet: Society’s Impact on Aging

I’m Gettin’ Me Mallet: Society’s Impact on Aging

There are so many stereotypes associated with aging. Just about every negative trait is thrown at older adults with the hope that it sticks. Some claim that older adults are closed-minded, grumpy, forgetful, and slow. And of course, on top of these there are positive stereotypes as well, like older adults being wise, kind, generous, and so on. Between these stereotypes, though, there is the reality that our behavior is influenced by the various social factors around us. These explain the reason why stereotypes are so pervasive. Essentially, one’s social environment has an impact on their cognitive development, two ways of which I will attempt to highlight in this blog: through positive/negative environmental support and through internalization of stereotypes.

This is a picture of Eustace Bagge from Courage the Cowardly Dog. Eustace is a prime representative of the stereotype of older adults being grumpy and stuck in their ways (Copyright Cartoon Network)

One of the most pervasive stereotypes about older adults is that they are old-fashioned and stuck in their ways – not open to anything new, something that especially plays out with technology. Research actually shows the contrary – that older adults actually have a positive view towards technology (Rogers et al., 2020). One reason that older adults seem to not use certain technologies is because they are simply not as accessible. While some of us grew up being literate in using new technology, many older adults were not doing the same, meaning that there are significant barriers to entry. If you’re interested in reading more about the subject, I recommend checking out this blog. So generally, older adults are not closed up to new experiences, but some experiences and activities may not be as accessible for them. This also extends to negativity. One description of older adults is that they are grumpy but research again points towards the opposite conclusion: older adults actually show higher scores on positivity assessments than younger adults (Maillet & Schacter, 2016). 

These negative stereotypes themselves can impact the cognitive performance of older adults through a concept called stereotype threat. Stereotype threat puts forth the idea that these negative stereotypes can create a sort of internalized sentiment that leads to older adults performing worse in certain cognitive tasks. Some research suggests that cognitive tests themselves may inflate negative stereotypes around the performance of people of certain races (Manly, 2008). So certain adults are more susceptible to threats from different aging-related stereotypes, depending on the identities they hold and their specific environment. In a task-paradigm, this translates to increased anxiety, disrupted usage of beneficial strategies, and/or conceding to expected performance (Chasteen et al., 2011). The implications for this are significant, suggesting that our knowledge about many facets of cognitive decline with age can possibly be influenced by pre-existing stereotypes about older adults.

Another significant area where we can see society impacting older adults’ performance is pathology. The expression of pathological symptoms, depending on the disorder, is contingent on several factors which can be mainly divided into two categories: genetics and environment – nature and nurture. One study in Denmark showed that the age that an individual moved to a city was linked to their risk of schizophrenia (Pedersen & Mortensen, 2001). Compared to rural areas, individuals that moved to large cities as well as small cities had an increased risk of expressing symptoms of schizophrenia. The environment that we live in has a considerable influence on our process of aging. For disordered aging as well as normative aging, this highlights the significance of life experiences and other environmental factors in influencing cognitive performance. 

This specific concept is encompassed in the theory of cognitive reserve. This theory explains that there is a buffer in the brain that protects against age-related decline and this buffer is either strengthened or damaged by certain positive or negative experiences during one’s life. This cognitive reserve is not some physical structure that can be visually detected in the brain, but rather an accumulation of different factors throughout one’s life, like education, occupation, stress, and lifestyle activities (Varangis & Stern, 2020). A buildup of positive experiences has been shown to protect against the process of cognitive decline with normative aging. This includes positive social relations and exercise, which are specifically highlighted for their potential to protect against decline. To read more about these topics, I suggest that you read this blog and this blog as well. But what this means is that lifestyle choices and one’s environment can potentially provide enrichment that preserves cognitive functions with age or just the opposite. 

And this concept of cognitive reserve has considerable implications for not only normative aging, but also pathological aging. Individuals with Alzheimer’s-type dementia and high cognitive reserve show preserved function in that the onset of symptoms is delayed, however there is a very sharp decline in cognitive functions later on in life. This is compared to the trajectory of individuals with lower cognitive reserve, who show a longer and more gradual decline. So the difference between low and high cognitive reserve in regards to Alzheimer’s Disease is that symptomatology is delayed for a substantial amount of time, even though the biological pathology underlying the disorder is itself not being treated. Just the different experiences in one’s life can have this drastic impact.

The social environment that individuals are surrounded by has a considerable impact on the process of aging, with environmental support being linked to improved outcomes for both disordered and normative aging. In this same environment, the stereotypes about older adults also impact cognitive performance. There are many stereotypes about aging and older adults that are simply not true, like older adults being angry and closed-minded. However, regardless of the truthfulness of these stereotypes, they may still have an impact on older adults’ cognitive performance by activating stereotype threat.


Chasteen, A. L., Kang, S. K., & Remedios, J. D. (2012). Aging and stereotype threat: Development, process, and interventions. Stereotype threat: Theory, process, and application, 202–216. 

Maillet, D., & Schacter, D. L. (2016). From mind wandering to involuntary retrieval: Age-related differences in spontaneous cognitive processes. Neuropsychologia, 80, 142–156. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.11.017

Rogers, W., Blocker, K., & Dupuy, L. (2020). Current and Emerging Technologies for Supporting Successful Aging. In A. Thomas & A. Gutchess (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Aging: A Life Course Perspective (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology, pp. 717-736). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781108552684.044

Manly, J. J. (2008). Race, culture, education, and cognitive test performance among older adults. In S. M. Hofer & D. F. Alwin (Eds.), Handbook of cognitive aging: Interdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 398–417). Sage Publications, Inc. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781412976589.n25

Pedersen, C. B., & Mortensen, P. B. (2001). Evidence of a dose-response relationship between urbanicity during upbringing and schizophrenia risk. Archives of general psychiatry, 58(11), 1039-1046.

Varangis, Eleanna, and Yaakov Stern. Cognitive Reserve. The Cambridge Handbook of Cognitive Aging: A Life Course Perspective (2020): 32-46.

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