"This is the first study to demonstrate that older individuals' age stereotypes can predict their sensory perception," said first author Becca R. Levy, associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health (EPH) and Department of Psychology at Yale.
"Although a wide array of biological factors have been identified that contribute to hearing decline, our team felt it was important to understand whether social psychological factors, such as the age stereotypes that individuals take in from their culture, may also influence hearing," said Levy.
Levy and her team studied 546 people age 70 and older. The participants were part of the Precipitating Events Project, a long-term study of residents of the Greater New Haven area. Their age stereotypes were measured when they entered the study. Hearing was measured with a hand-held audioscope at the beginning of the study at baseline and again three years later.
To measure age stereotypes, participants were asked, "When you think of an old person, what are the first five words or phrases that come to mind?" The responses were judged on how negative or positive they were and how internal or external they were. Stereotypes rated negative included "senile" and "feeble," whereas stereotypes rated positive included "wise" and "active." External stereotypes included visual images such as grey hair, wrinkles and stooped posture. The study adjusted for initial levels of hearing, as well as several other variables that are known to affect hearing including age, education, gender, race, depression, chronic conditions and smoking history.
Older persons with more negative and external age stereotypes performed worse on hearing measures at the end of the three-year study. According to Levy, "Hearing loss is the third most common chronic condition among persons age 65 years and older and can lead to increased social isolation, self-denigration, loneliness and depression."
Levy said both negative and external age stereotypes could have adverse health-behavior consequences, such as older individuals becoming more accepting of hearing loss than younger people and not seeking medical attention.
Other authors on the study were Martin D. Slade and Thomas M. Gill, M.D.
The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging and was conducted at Yale EPH and the Yale Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center.
Citation: Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, Vol. 61, No. 2 (March 2006)