The power of ageism on physical function of older persons: reversibility of age-related gait changes

J Am Geriatr Soc. 1999 Nov;47(11):1346-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-5415.1999.tb07437.x.


Objective: To test the hypothesis that age-associated changes in physical function, particularly walking performance, are influenced by ageism and that the activation of positive sterotypes of aging can partially reverse these changes.

Design: Randomized intervention study.

Setting: General community.

Participants: Forty-seven community-dwelling men and women (63-82 years old) who walked independently and described themselves as healthy.

Intervention: Thirty-minute exposure to the subconscious reinforcement of either a positive or negative stereotype of aging while subjects played a computer game.

Measurements: Pre- and postintervention measures of gait speed and percent swing time (the time spent with one foot in the air during walking). Health and psychosocial status were also evaluated.

Results: Significant increases in walking speed (9%+/-2%; P < .001) and percent swing time (percent change: 1.1%+/-0.4%; P = .023) were observed in subjects who received reinforcement of positive stereotypes of aging. Gait speed and swing time did not change in those who received reinforcement of negative stereotypes of aging. The observed improvements in gait were related to the positive intervention, but were not related to age, gender, health status, or psychosocial status.

Conclusions: Stereotypes of aging apparently have a powerful impact on the gait of older persons. Interventions designed to enhance perceptions of old age may prove beneficial in helping to improve gait and functional independence among older persons. In the future, positive changes in society's view of aging may also help to reduce and prevent age-related declines in function and the associated deleterious consequences.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Activities of Daily Living*
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging / physiology
  • Aging / psychology*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Attitude to Health*
  • Female
  • Gait / physiology*
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Health
  • Middle Aged
  • Prejudice*
  • Reinforcement, Psychology
  • Sex Factors
  • Stereotyping
  • Time Factors
  • Walking / physiology