Here’s a challenge for you: Now think of someone old, like your grandparents. List the first five words and phrases that spring to mind. Now, consider your list. Are your words positive and negative? This is the exercise Dr. Becca Levy requires her students to complete on their first day of the Health and Ageing class they teach at Yale. She is a psychologist and professor of psychology and is one of the most prominent researchers in the field of aging. The answers of her students range from “senile” to “stubborn”, to “walks quite a bit” and to “kind.” However, the majority of the words and the first few are negative.
She argues in Breaking the Age Code, How Your Beliefs about Aging Influence How Long & Well We Live. That’s a problem. Her research shows that negative attitudes about age, which she calls “negative beliefs about age”, can have a detrimental effect on our health as we age. This means that if we think we will be losing our cognitive and physical abilities as we age, we will experience a faster decline. Dr. Levy discovered that how you think about your age can affect how long you live. This was according to a shocking study. She writes that “Societally-based aging beliefs impact our health and the biological markers for aging.” “When it comes down to how we age, biology is often the cause.”
Dr. Levy insists that she doesn’t deny the negative effects of aging. However, it is important to recognize that not all effects of aging are inevitable and that we can alter our thinking about them. Her lab has shown her that positive experiences can improve subjects’ memory, balance, and will to live. This research is relevant to anyone with a pulse. We are all under sentence of death but have an indefinite reprieve. We spoke with Dr. Levy about her book and how the interventions she has used in her lab can help us all extend our reprieve.
- Could you give us an example of a positive and negative age belief?
Dr. Levy says that “positive age beliefs” are those that are positive and representative for older people. Examples of positive age beliefs include “wisdom” or “creative”. Negative beliefs include “frail,” senility, and “decline.”
- Is it true that American society is more likely to hold negative beliefs about their age than positive beliefs?
Correct. Good news is that most people are aware of positive age beliefs, despite the fact that there are many negative beliefs. We asked people to think about an older person and found that although the first few words or phrases are often more negative, the fourth or fifth will usually bring up something positive.
- What are some things that people become better at as they get older?
Some research suggests that metacognition (or thinking about thinking) is improving. It is possible to find creative solutions and resolve interpersonal and political conflicts. Emotion regulation, being aware of emotions and drawing from them in a positive way can all improve mental health. The ability to review one’s entire life and draw lessons from it has been shown to be an important quality in later life.
I write in the book that “The popular narrative of aging is a time of inevitable mental, and physical decline” That word, “inevitable”, is key. There are many signs that indicate growth and improvement in certain aspects of our mental and physical health. People can see improvement in their ability to accept aging as a natural process. We found that older people can have better episodic memories.
- How can we change negative stereotypes about the elderly?
One way to do this is to create a portfolio that includes positive images about aging. I recommend that people create five positive older role models. These are examples of older people you admire. You can draw some inspiration from your own family, such as grandparents or other relatives, and others from the wider world. Next, think of a few qualities you admire in that person that you want to improve upon: humor, work ethic and sense of justice.
It would be fair to say, however, that negative age beliefs (believing in the weakness or senility of old people) can lead to diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. However it can also make it less likely that we do things to prevent these diseases. It’s a complex topic that I am trying to explain in layman’s terms.
In my research, I have identified three mechanisms.
- Behavioral mechanisms: People who have more positive beliefs about their age are more likely to adopt healthy lifestyle choices, such as exercising and eating well.
- There’s also the psychological level. Someone who has more positive beliefs may feel more confident or well-rounded.
- The physiological level is the third. Stress is a major one. We have looked at various stress biomarkers and found that people with more positive beliefs tend to have lower stress levels and cortisol levels.
These beneficial mechanisms can lead to improved health, or lower risk for some [negative] outcomes, if someone has more positive age beliefs.
- If people are interested in knowing how to increase their lifespan or health span, this is the three-pronged approach: psychological, physiological, and behavioral. Does that sound fair?
The book is based on age beliefs. It is possible to change an upstream factor such as age beliefs and have ripple effects that then affect things further downstream. Some interventions may not be effective, as they don’t take into consideration the larger structural, social, and cultural contexts. We can increase the positive age beliefs and have a ripple effect that will positively affect some of these [behavioral psychological, and physiological] mechanisms. This could in turn impact the health outcomes.
- Your research shows that our society is denigrating the elderly and we are all ageing faster. These portrayals are affecting our aging in some way.
Right. These messages can also operate without our knowledge. It is possible to increase our awareness and take control of the messages we are exposed too. This can help us to question what they are telling us. If we could reduce structural ageism on a social level, that would be a great thing.
- Let’s talk a little bit about Botox to get deeper into this idea. What does this mean for some cultural age beliefs and ideas about aging?
Botox and other cosmetic procedures that reduce the signs of aging have seen a surge in popularity. There are more advertisements that target younger people. It’s profitable to create fear about aging. Unfortunately, this messaging promotes some of the negative beliefs about aging in society.
It’s possible that this is an example of structural aging, or that people just prefer not to have wrinkles.
The book focuses on the role of advertising, and the huge profit it makes through negative advertising that promotes fear of aging and ageism. This is where we can intervene structurally: to make advertising more age-positive and to show more diversity in the advertising and images.
- What are the most common forms of structural ageism, and what can they be used for?
People don’t pay attention to certain terms. For example, the term “senior minute” is used to describe someone who forgets things at any age. This is a common misconception that forgetfulness is something inherent to aging. Elder speak is another term that refers to the ability to talk to older people like they are children or babies. It is easy to learn this language.
- Your suggestion is that we can also combat structural ageism in America by learning from cultures that see ourselves less as individuals but more as part of larger networks. What does this mean for our perception of aging?
Many age-positive cultures are characterized by collectivist beliefs. It is possible to have a culture which embraces the coming together of different generations. The United States has gone from one of the most aged-integrated countries to one of its most age-segregated. These age-positive countries have a desire to foster more contact and meaningful interaction between generations. Research shows that meaningful contact between generations is one of the best ways for people to overcome discrimination and prejudice between ages. You can see real life examples of people who defy age-related beliefs, which can help to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions. Research shows that intergenerational workplaces are more productive and can lead to more innovation.
- Yale has a class on Health and Aging that you teach. What surprised you the most about the way young people respond to this research?
Because we live in such a age-segregated society, many younger people are unaware of the ageism in our culture. Younger people often have limited opportunities to meet older people and interact with them in daily life. This ageism can be implicit or explicit and it can often make it difficult to see what is right in front of you. My experience was that younger people get angry when they are made aware of ageism. Many will seek out ways to overcome ageism and challenge it. It’s been very encouraging to see all the potential young friends of the social movement.