Recent Study Shows How Perceptions of Aging Vary By Culture

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Do you view old age as a sign of wisdom and superior memory? Or is aging a source of decreased mental capacity and infirmity? It turns out your answer might depend on where you grew up.

In a recent study, researchers looked at perceptions of aging in three societies. They showed photos of young and old people to Tsimane' Amazonian forager-farmers in Bolivia, and to people from the United States and Poland in order to determine whether so-called “traditional” cultures view aging in a different light than industrialized societies. They asked questions like “Whose opinion is more respected?” And “Who is more forgetful?”

They found that, overall, the Tsimane' viewed aging in a more positive light. In particular, the Tsimane' saw the elderly as having better memories than young people, whereas people in the United States and Poland believed young people had superior memories. According to researcher Corinna Löckenhoff, this might be because in Tsimane’ society, the elderly are viewed as repositories of oral culture and knowledge: since traditional knowledge is less likely to be written, the elderly become a primary source of information. 

According to Futurity, anthropologists have long theorized that most traditional societies view aging in a more positive light than industrialized societies. However, this is the first study to collect quantitative data on perceptions of aging across cultures. 

The researchers also found that all three societies believed old people were wiser about “life issues” than the young. While, in general, the Tsimane’ viewed aging more positively, all three cultures claimed the elderly were respected.

Löckenhoff hopes the study will help combat stereotypes about aging, which she argues can have a negative impact on the elderly in industrialized societies: “Older people could be doing better if they were not pulled down by stereotype threat,” she told Futurity.

[h/t: Futurity]