Stereotyping the elderly as forgetful and senile further aggravates their memory problems, University of Southern California researchers found.

Old people are often stereotyped as being forgetful and senile. Of course, their memory power does deteriorate with age, but researchers from the University of Southern California found that reminding them about such stereotypes can further aggravate the problem.

The study highlights the fact that it is crucial for physicians to understand how aging beliefs affect the actual memory performance of an older adult.

"Older adults should be careful not to buy into negative stereotypes about aging - attributing every forgetful moment to getting older can actually worsen memory problems," said Sarah Barber, a postdoctoral researcher at USC Davis and lead author of the study, in a press statement.

Previous studies state that 70 percent of older adults met diagnostic criteria for dementia when examined under stereotype threat, compared to approximately 14 percent when not assessed under threat.

For the study, researchers analyzed older adults aged between 59 and 79 years. They were divided into two groups. One group was given fake news articles about memory loss in older adults to read while the other group was not given the articles to read. All participants were then asked to complete a memory test. Again the participants were divided into two new groups. One group earned a monetary reward for every word they remembered in the memory test while the other group lost money for every word they forgot during the test.

The study revealed two facts to researchers. Firstly, when the participants had something to gain, they performed worse when subjected to stereotype threats about memory loss. However, when the participants had something to lose, they performed better when subjected to stereotype threats about memory loss.

The findings led researchers to conclude that older adults respond to stereotype threats based on their priorities.  They suggested that physicians could actually use this in tests by alternating an older adult's focus to the importance of not making mistakes rather than on the negative aspects of stereotype threats.