Yale School of Public Health
ome people lose strength and vitality when they get older, while others remain robust. The same disparity exists when it comes to eyesight, hearing and mental faculties.
Genetics and lifestyle can play a part, but to a surprising extent, what you think about aging does as well. To learn more, Bottom Line/Health recently spoke to Yale psychologist Becca Levy, PhD, a renowned expert in stereotypes related to aging...
How do stereotypes affect how we age? There are numerous ways, but let's look at hearing loss as an example. Most people consider it an inevitable fact of growing older, but there's more to it than biology.
In a study conducted at Yale, we measured the hearing of more than 500 adults age 70 and older and asked them what five words or phrases first came to mind when they thought of an old person.
Three years later, the people who associated aging with stereotypes like "feeble" and "senile" had suffered significantly more hearing loss than those who had answered with positive words like "wise" and "active." In other studies, negative thoughts or beliefs about aging were linked to poorer memory as the years passed.
Can one's recovery from serious physical ailments, such as heart disease, also be affected? Apparently so. In one study, we interviewed 62 heart attack patients (ages 50 to 96) about their stereotypes of aging within two weeks after their heart attacks.
Seven months later, patients who expressed more positive stereotypes had experienced better physical recoveries -- as measured by tests involving balance and timed walking -- than those who expressed more negative stereotypes.
Could a person's views on aging even affect his/her life span? One of our studies showed just that. It involved 660 people, ages 50 to 94, who were asked questions that explored the ways they perceived their own aging.
For example, the study participants, all of whom lived in Oxford, Ohio, were asked how much they agreed with statements, such as "Things keep getting worse as I get older" and "I am as happy now as I was when I was younger."
Nearly 25 years later, researchers tracked those participants who were still alive and how long the others had lived. Those who had expressed a more positive view when surveyed lived a median of seven years longer, even after differences in their ages and health at that time were taken into account. It held true for both men and women who were over age 60 as well as those who were younger.
How do researchers explain this phenomenon? There is no definitive explanation, but we think that several mechanisms are involved. Some are physiological and might well involve the harmful effects of stress on bodily systems.
Another piece is likely to be behavioral -- people who believe that aging means unavoidable memory decline, for example, quite possibly won't try as hard or as long to remember, and won't bother to apply strategies that could help. Similarly, people who think there's nothing that can be done about hearing loss probably aren't as quick to seek medical attention if they develop hearing trouble.
In the longevity study, we found that views on aging can affect an older person's will to live -- this explained, at least in part, the difference in survival. When you don't believe that the benefits of a long life will outweigh the hardships, you're less likely to follow a healthful lifestyle and seek treatments that prolong life.
What's the source of these stereotypes? Negative depictions of aging can be found everywhere -- from greeting cards to best-selling books to the media. We think television, in particular, has a major effect. We surveyed a group of people ages 60 to 92, who watched an average of 21 hours of television per week, and found that the more TV they watched, the more negative their beliefs were about aging.
The negative stereotyping most likely starts early -- for example, wicked witches in fairy tales are gnarled and wrinkled -- and sinks in deeply. Then, as aging occurs, some individuals start applying these negative beliefs to themselves.
Is it possible to change these beliefs? We've been able to show in the lab that they change quite readily in the short term. In one recent study, we tested how fast elderly people could walk -- a key measurement of frailty (a condition that includes exhaustion and weight loss as well as loss of muscle mass and strength).
Participants were randomly assigned to either a positive or negative age-stereotype group. We subliminally flashed words with positive connotations about aging, such as "wise," "alert" and "mature," to one group, and showed negative words, such as "senile" and "decrepit," to the other group.
Participants in the positive stereotype group walked significantly faster and demonstrated better balance than those in the negative stereotype group.
To a great extent, we don't question these stereotypes because we've absorbed them so completely that we're not even conscious of them. Becoming aware of their presence in everyday life is a first step toward questioning their validity.
What, specifically, can people do to fight these stereotypes? In the TV study, we asked participants to keep a journal describing the way that older people were represented. The participants were shocked to discover how often they were made the target of jokes, and that they were frequently omitted from programming. "It's like we're nonexistent," wrote one study participant.
In your own life, make a point to pay attention to more positive images of aging -- active, effective people in politics, the arts and the community, for example. I don't mean "superstars" who are jumping out of planes at age 80. It's too easy to write them off as exceptions that have nothing to do with you. Also, spend time with older role models, such as relatives and residents of your community, and learn about their strengths and contributions.
Doesn't this promote a falsely optimistic view? Not necessarily. It's more a matter of accepting that aging will involve a range of changes -- some are positive, some are negative... some are inevitable and some are malleable. It is important to recognize the many places where a realistic attitude and positive action can make a real difference.
Editor's note: More and more organizations are now promoting the accomplishments of older adults. One such program is the Purpose Prize, which provides $10,000 and $100,000 awards to people over age 60 who make significant contributions to society.
To learn more, contact Civic Ventures, a nonprofit think tank that promotes the achievements of older adults, 415-222-7486, www.leadwithexperience.org.
Bottom Line/Health interviewed Becca Levy, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Connecticut. She was the lead author of a recent study on stereotypes and aging, published in Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Science.