As We Age: The Power of Our Beliefs

Boy in Red T-Shirt with Two Thumbs Up

What is easier than enticing young children to eat more vegetables, and even better for their health? Actually, simply changing the way they think about aging could help them live longer and better. A recent article in the New York Times blog, The New Old Age, discussed important research conducted by Becca Levy, Ph.D. of Yale University regarding what we believe about aging.

In one study Dr. Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology, looked at 660 participants and “she found that those with positive age stereotypes lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative stereotypes.” You read that correctly! Simply seeing old age and aging in a positive light affected cardiovascular health and helped people live longer.

The article “Older People Become What They Think” by Judith Graham (2012), also shares Dr. Levy’s new findings regarding older adults’ recovery from disability, recently published in The Journal of the American Medical Association. “When older adults view age as a time of wisdom, self-realization and satisfaction…”they are much more likely to recover their ability to function at a high level. On the other hand, older adults with negative age stereotypes have lower life expectancies and do not recover from disability as well. Adults who believe society devalues them are also more likely to face memory loss and less likely to take good care of their bodies.

Of course, older people with these negative beliefs have been taking in those messages almost daily for much of their lives. We all do—the wrinkle cream ad, the TV sitcom joke with attendant laugh track, the conversation overheard in a coffee shop, and yes, even from books geared to the youngest children.

In my earlier readings of Dr. Levy’s research she discussed the process of stereotype embodiment as occurring over time (from childhood to old age) and from society to the individual. Personally, I believe these negatives then literally lurk in the shadows of our mind, and a trigger, such as forgetting a phone number or the ache in our knees, often brings forth a cascade of anxieties about what the future holds.

Next Steps to Challenging Ageism

In the article I refer to today Dr. Levy and several experts on aging discuss what could be done to help people live longer and healthier. One expert notes that even young kids will “…tell you that older adults are sick, slow, forgetful, no good,” and Dr. Levy encourages us to “…think about how to reinforce the more positive aspects of aging.” Choose books for young children that highlight the very real positives and talk about them. It can impact not only the kids, but also those reading to them—their parents, their teachers and librarians, and of course their grandparents. The messages about aging in children’s books could actually contribute to improved physical health for us all as we age.

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