Could Subliminal Messages Help Keep Seniors Healthy?

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Photo: Lynn Bo Bo/EPA/Corbis

Aging doesn’t occur in a vacuum. All sorts of factors ranging from genetic influence to support networks can alter what it means to get older and potentially face new, unfamiliar physical and emotional challenges. And research has shown (PDF) that a big part of successfully adapting to these challenges is maintaining a positive attitude about the process.

A new study in Psychological Science asks whether one way of helping people “stay on the sunny side” might be through implicit priming — a process most commonly performed by flashing a word on a screen so quickly that it escapes conscious notice but can still affect future thoughts and actions (or so a lot of research has shown).

In the study, led by Becca Levy of Yale University, researchers traveled to the homes of a group of people between 61 and 99 years of age, in and around New Haven. Over the course of multiple visits, they went through procedures involving both implicit and explicit measures, and either neutral or positive conditions.

For the implicit measures, participants briefly had either positive-aging-related-words like spry (mixed in with some neutral ones) or nonsense collections of letters flashed on a screen too quickly for them to make out what had been seen. For the explicit measures, participants were asked to write about a given subject — either images “mentally and physically health” senior citizens, or a neutral subject.

Levy and her team measured the extent to which the participants were aging in a healthy manner by gauging their self-perceptions of aging, their positive age stereotypes, and their physical well-being. They found that those in the implicit-positive group saw better gain on all these dimensions than those in any of the other groups — an effect they observed up to their last visit, which was eight weeks after the experiment started. The positive explicit measures (writing about healthy seniors) didn’t appear to make any statistical difference.

The researchers write that their study “demonstrated, for the first time, that an implicit intervention can significantly improve functioning over an extended period.” It remains to be seen, of course, how long these effects will last, and where attempts to replicate and improve upon these findings will lead. It’s definitely intriguing, though, to imagine the idea of properly attuned “subliminal messaging” helping people age — and live — better.

Could Subliminal Messages Keep Seniors Healthy?