If you have been reading Time Goes By for a couple of years or more, you know that there is growing evidence that your personal attitude toward getting old can affect your health and even your longevity.
I first reported on the work of Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University, in 2004, and her startling discovery that a positive view of aging can extend life expectancy for up to seven-and-a-half years. As she wrote, then, at boomercareer.com (no longer available online):
“…not only does a person’s perceptions of aging form when they are young and are reinforced for most of their lives, but the formation of these perceptions are unconsciously internalized. In short, by the time you reach a point in your life when your thoughts turn to aging, your negative – or positive – perceptions of yourself and others have already become part of our attitudes.”
Four years later, in 2008, Professor Levy had finished another study on how negative language affects elders which you can read about here:
“’Those little insults can lead to more negative images of aging,’ Dr. Levy said. ‘And those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival.’”
I try to follow Ms. Levy's work closely but it's nice to have friends like Judith Graham, a frequent contributor to The New York Times's New Old Age Blog, to do the work for me sometimes. Recently, she reported on Levy's latest study:
”Her new findings about the impact of age stereotypes on older adults’ recovery from disability,” reports Graham, “is an extension of this body of work. In this case, Dr. Levy and her co-authors followed 598 adults age 70 and older in New Haven, Conn., from 1998 to 2008.
“Disability was defined as needing help with basic activities of daily living like bathing, dressing and walking, and its onset was typically precipitated by an illness or injury.
“Again, seniors with positive age stereotypes were much more likely to have good results and recover fully.”
Researchers like Becca Levy and others do not yet understand the mechanism, says Graham, by which positive attitudes toward age seem so strongly connected to health, wellbeing and, when necessary, good recovery of illness or injury. But they believe that tackling ageism can go a long way toward helping people live healthier, longer lives:
“'Even young kids have negative associations; they tell you that older adults are sick, slow, forgetful, no good,' said Dana Kotter-Gruehn, a visiting assistant professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.
“Also generations need to be brought together so that 'people can experience what it means to be an older person' and stereotypes can be dispelled, Dr. Kotter-Gruehn said. This has been shown to help change people’s stereotypes about race and homosexuality, she noted.
“Closer to home, all of us who interact with older people can 'think about how to reinforce the more positive aspects of aging,' Dr. Levy said.
“'If all of us became a little more aware of the implications of our communications' — the tone of voice we use with seniors, the attitude we adopt, the use of loaded phrases or expressions, the extent to which we give older adults our full, undivided attention — 'that would help quite a lot.'”
You can read Judith Graham's complete report here. And watch your language. It could help us all live longer and healthier lives.
(Becca Levy and her co-authors published this study in The Journal of the American Medical Assocation which you can read here if you have a subscription.)
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dan Gogerty: Who Photoshopped the Corn Harvest?