Love Ageing, Live Better
Your opinion about what it means to be elderly can determine if your own golden years are spry and happy
What we ask Google most frequently can easily be discovered by seeing how the search engine autofills the beginning of a statement or question we’ve typed in. These top results are also, then, a snapshot of what other inquiring minds privately think of the subject that’s just been raised.
In 2013, social scientists from the Centre for the Study of Group Processes at the University of Kent in the UK explored a specific collective bias by typing “old people should” into the search bar.
“Old people should not drive,” read the top result. And, more disconcer-tingly, the second most popular was: “Old people should die.” These troubling findings indicate our society’s indictment of the elderly. But also, on a deeper level, they’re a reflection of our views on the ageing process itself. The cultural message that has clearly been swallowed hook, line and sinker: Be afraid, be very afraid, of getting old.
As other researchers have found, there’s a karmic irony at the centre of this kind of thinking. Holding negative opinions of ageing, they’ve concluded, makes people age more quickly.
Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale’s School of Public Health, has found again and again that subjects who hold the most negative view of ageing—or who have assimilated pessimistic stereotypes of the elderly—pay for that bias on a physical level.
Levy has been exploring the topic for the last 20 years. In 2002, her most well-known study examined data collected in the mid-1970s from the town of Oxford, Ohio, USA. Residents over 50 were asked to respond to statements about ageing. “As you get older, you are less useful” (yes or no); “As I get older, things are (better, worse or the same) as I thought they would be.”
When Levy evaluated the mortality data from study subjects, she made a startling discovery: Those with the most negative views of ageing died, on average, 7.6 years younger than those with the most positive ones. In fact, she found that being ageist influenced lifespan more than gender, incidence of loneliness or amount of exercise.
There wasn’t an obvious explanation for the ageism effect, but since the number one killer of people in that age group is cardiovascular disease, Levy wondered if this attitude stresses the heart, and decided to test that hypothesis.
In her lab at Yale, Levy had 54 participants between the ages of 62 and 82 take math and verbal tests under a tight time limit. Before they began, the subjects were ‘primed’ with either positive or negative stereotypes of ageing: Words were flashed on a screen too quickly for the conscious mind to apprehend. The groups exposed to negative terms—such as ‘decline’, ‘decrepit’ and ‘confused’—saw a spike in blood pressure and an increased heart rate. Participants primed with positive stereotypes like ‘astute’, ‘wise’ and ‘accomplished’ calmed down.
“We wondered how that might operate in the community over time,” Levy says—a question that led to another in a second eye-opening study in 2009. In it, Levy analyzed survey data from 440 subjects of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Ageing—one of the world’s longest-running ageing studies—who were between 18 and 49.
She found that those who agreed with gloomy opinions of ageing suffered twice as many heart events—from mini-strokes to congestive heart failure—as those who had absorbed rosier ones. Even after controlling for every factor she could think of—from diet and smoking habits to depression and family history—Levy found that the subjects’ thoughts on ageing were still of huge significance. What might explain the dramatic physiological effects of something as ineffable as thoughts about getting old?
Our attitudes, conscious or not, drive our routines and lifestyle—a fact Levy believes is a factor in her studies’ outcomes. “If people hold more negative views of ageing, they may be less likely to walk the extra block or engage in healthy behaviours as they get older, because they tend to think of poor health later in life as inevitable,” she says.
According to Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer—who has collaborated with Levy in the past—the disconnect between young people and their future selves also comes into play. “People under 40 don’t think of themselves as getting older,” she says, explaining that this could prevent them from developing behaviours that benefit them later.
And indeed, in 2011, psychologist and marketing professor Hal Hershfield showed that when people were urged to think about their later-in-life selves, they allocated more resources for the future—such as squirrelling away more money for their retirement.
In another of his studies, subjects who were nudged into considering their future by writing a letter to themselves 20 years down the road beefed up their exercise routines.
To see whether attitudes can still be reversed closer to the end of life, Langer ran studies in which older people were encouraged to remember what it was like to be young. In her famous Counterclockwise study, conducted in 1979, eight men in their 70s and 80s were dropped into an elaborate time-capsule recreation of 1959. They emerged, one week later, measurably spryer—their grip strength and flexibility had improved, and they performed better on tests of cognition.
This work has inspired the design of some seniors’ facilities and the rethinking of eldercare. In the Hogeweyk ‘Dementia Village’, built near Amsterdam in 2009, residents are placed into cottages tailored to evoke the familiar and comforting surroundings of their particular upbringing. In addition to her studies on mortality and heart disease, Levy has gone on to show that ageism affects even things you wouldn’t expect to have a psychological dimension, such as balance, handwriting and memory.
And last February, in the Public Library of Science’s journal PLOS ONE, Levy published her most personal study yet.
Her grandfather had suffered from Alzheimer’s and, in collaboration with the scientific director of the National Institute on Aging, she explored whether ageist thoughts could influence that condition.
Using a data set of 4,765 subjects with an average age of 72, Levy and three colleagues zeroed in on people who carry the E4 variant of the APOE gene, which increases the likelihood of developing early-onset Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia by 50 per cent.
As it turned out, around a quarter of the subjects carried the variant, and all of them were still dementia-free at that point. When Levy compared attitudes towards getting older with health outcomes four years later, those who held more optimistic views of ageing were half as likely to show signs of dementia.
Pushing back against ageism should begin early, says Levy, noting that studies have shown children as young as three have already taken in negative stereotypes.
“But we also have research that suggests that thoughts are malleable,” she adds. “If you prompt them, most people can come up with positive images of ageing. People can be taught to question negative beliefs.”
How would we know whether a new generation is accepting more positive attitudes about ageing? Perhaps, down the road, when you begin to type “Old people should” into Google, the search engine will spit out a result like: “Old people should be respected.”
Or perhaps: “Old people should have patience with the rest of us.”