The Power of Positive Aging

Feel good about growing older? You’ll probably live longer

Do you feel good about growing older? If you do, you may very well live longer than those who dread old age. This good news (or bad news, depending on how you feel about aging) emerged from a study done by psychologist Becca R. Levy, PhD, of the Yale School of Public Health. She and her colleagues found that people’s attitudes to aging can affect not only how well they function but also how long they live.

Levy’s research followed up on a study done in 1975, when 660 residents of the small town of Oxford, OH—all of them 50 or older—answered questions regarding how they felt about their own aging. They were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statements:

• Things keep getting worse as I get older.

• I have as much pep as I did last year.

• As you get older, you get less useful.

• I am as happy now as I was when I was younger.

• As I get older, things are (better, worse or the same) as I thought they would be.

Trapped in a 60-Year-Old Body

From an article in The Hunterdon County (NJ) Democrat, here’s what some New Jersey elementary school kids had to say when asked to imagine what would happen if they woke up from a nap to find out that suddenly they were 60 years old.

A second grader: “I would scream! Then I’d shave. Next, I’d take my medication and put on my glasses (because your eyesight goes bad). I’d take my blood pressure next. Then I’d go back to sleep and hope in the morning I’d be a kid again!” 

A fourth grader: “I look in the mirror and call the plastic surgeon for a face lift. I put on tons of make-up so no one can see that I have wrinkles. I am a 9-year-old stuck in a 60-year-old body! AAHHH!”

A first grader summed up what most of the children felt: “I would go back to sleep and hope I got younger.” 

Twenty-three years later, Levy’s team checked to see which participants had died and when. They found that those who had responded to the original survey with a positive attitude lived about seven and a half years longer than those with a more negative outlook.

In fact, people’s attitudes toward aging had a greater influence on how long they lived than their health at the time, their gender, their financial resources or any other factor the researchers examined. Those who felt positive about growing older also functioned better over the years—they could walk and climb stairs more easily, for example. Levy and her colleagues noted that if pessimism about aging were a virus that cut life expectancy by more than seven years, scientists would be hot on the trail of a cure.

One obvious explanation for Levy’s results is that people who look forward to their later years are apt to take better care of their health, and in other studies she and her colleagues did find that was true. She speculated that people who expect the worst of old age might feel it’s futile to make the effort to stay well.

But her studies demonstrate there’s more to it than that. Ageism drives the results.

Becoming Biased against Yourself

Ageism is a form of prejudice—a bias against older people, based solely on their chronological age, and against old age itself. It rests on derogatory stereotypes that are used to justify discrimination. It’s a peculiar bias, the only one that eventually affects all of us—if we live long enough. It can be blatant, limiting someone’s job options, or it can be as subtle as a stranger talking down to an older woman, calling her “dear” or “sweetie,” as if she were a child or incompetent.

Ageism is most damaging when you internalize it. If all your life you believed that, past a certain age, people rapidly deteriorate, then when you pass that age, you may assume that your own health and mental ability are on the skids. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if you’ve always looked down on elders, then as you become one, you may begin to feel badly about yourself.

Subliminal Suggestions

In a series of studies, Levy has investigated the impact of ageism on health and behavior. Recognizing that people harbor both positive stereotypes (wise old person) and negative ones (doddering old fool)—though researchers report that the negatives are more common—she found a way to activate those opposing stereotypes and study their effects.

Levy sat participants in front of a computer monitor that showed a bull’s-eye. Again and again, a light flashed briefly, and the subjects indicated whether they thought it was above or below the bull’s-eye. In reality, each burst of light contained a word. Because it vanished so quickly, participants were not aware it was there, yet on some level below awareness they caught its meaning. This is a psychological technique called subliminal priming. It’s subliminal because subjects absorb the message below the threshold of conscious awareness, and it is priming because experimenters use the technique to prepare subjects for a second stage of the study, which explores how the subliminal bombardment has affected them.

Levy primed participants with terms associated with aging, barraging some with negative words like “senile” and others with positive ones such as “wise.” Afterward, they took memory tests or performed various tasks.

Older people who were primed with positive words walked faster afterward—speeding up as much as if they’d spent weeks doing vigorous exercises.

Levy’s team repeatedly demonstrated that older people who had been exposed to negative terms were at a disadvantage. On four different memory tests, they scored poorly compared to those who had been shown positive words. When young people were similarly primed, it made no difference to their performance whether they were subjected to positive or negative words.

Levy’s experiments also brought about unexpected changes in ordinary behavior. Older people who had “seen” positive words walked faster afterward—in fact, they sped up as much as if they’d spent weeks doing vigorous exercises. In another study, those who had been subjected to negative terms produced shakier handwriting samples than the positively primed, samples that looked as if they had been written by much older people.

Other studies have confirmed that a positive perspective has medical benefits. Those who associate older people, on questionnaires, with good qualities are more likely to fully recover from a severe disability than those who don’t.

Levy’s research demonstrated that ageism can be damaging and can affect us on a level that isn’t even conscious. Could positive priming be used as an antidote to ageism? Levy had other work to do before she investigated that question.

The Stress Connection

In 2009, Levy found a link between ageist beliefs and heart disease. She used results from the long-running Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging to investigate what happened in later life to individuals who expressed a bias against older people while they themselves were relatively young. In 1968, 440 participants in the study, who were then between 18 and 49, were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “old people are helpless” or “old people are wise.”

When Levy and her colleagues checked on their health almost 40 years later, they found that those who’d had negative ideas about elders were much more likely to have had a serious heart problem, such as a stroke or heart attack.   

An earlier study suggested a possible reason. In 2000, Levy and her colleagues had primed subjects with positive or negative words and then given them tests designed to provoke anxiety, such as difficult math problems.

The priming session itself raised the blood pressure of those who were being prepped negatively, and their pressure stayed high during the tests. According to other researchers, when chronic stress repeatedly raises blood pressure, heart rate and other fight-or-flight responses, that can cause or worsen heart disease. If everyday ageism acts as a form of chronic stress, it could damage the heart.

Apparently, subliminal priming reaches us on a deeper level than direct challenges to our ageist stereotypes.

On the other hand, the subjects Levy primed positively showed signs of stress during the first set of tests, but their blood pressure decreased after a second round of priming and stayed down during stressful tests afterward. This supported her theory that being positively primed may actually protect people from stress.

Of all Levy’s studies, the most disconcerting findings are that age prejudices can undermine the will to live. Her team posed a series of hypothetical questions to subjects who had been primed. The questions asked what they would do if they learned they had a fatal condition but that medical intervention could prolong their lives. The hypothetical scenario spelled out either what the treatment would cost or how much time family members would need to dedicate to help.

Again, positive and negative priming came into play—the positives were more likely to accept medical intervention. Younger people who participated in the study generally favored the intervention no matter which way they had been primed.

Ageism on Television

Negative ideas about growing older seem to be everywhere but especially on TV. Television is particularly damaging because older people watch it more than those who are younger. Researchers report that many Americans prefer to watch shows about characters roughly their own age, but TV offers slim pickings for those in their later years. In 2005, fewer than 2 percent of the individuals (real and fictional) on prime-time television were 65-plus, though almost 13 percent of the US population was in that age group.

Today’s sitcoms appear to have even fewer older characters. The Golden Girls, Maude, Edith and Archie Bunker, Sanford and Sons and others like them are in reruns or long gone. When older characters are included now, they’re generally in minor roles and they’re often the butt of the joke. We laugh at them, not with them.

Expecting the Worst

A revealing 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center suggests that most Americans under 65 expect old age to be far worse than it is. The researchers interviewed almost 3,000 adults of different ages. Many of the under-65s believed that in their later years they would become ill, lonely, forgetful, depressed, have money problems and be unable to drive or have sex. When the investigators asked people who were already 65 or older whether they were ill, lonely, forgetful, etc., relatively few reported having any such difficulties.

Interviewees who were 85 and up were as likely as the younger seniors to say they were happy and were experiencing the benefits of aging—for instance, compared to when they were younger, they had more time to spend with family, more financial security, and they led a less stressful existence. 

Is there anything elders can do to protect themselves from televised ageism? Levy’s research suggests a possible strategy.

In a 2005 study, she and her team asked 76 people who were 60 and up to record what they watched on television for a week. The team asked half the participants to fill in an additional page each day, to evaluate the way older people were depicted on the shows they watched.

The study confirmed earlier research, which reported that the more TV people watch, the more negative their images of aging are. But those who filled in the extra page became much more aware of televised age biases. An 81-year-old man complained that seniors “shouldn’t be targets of jokes so often.” Others noted that news reporters seldom interviewed older people and that game shows rarely included them as contestants. A 68-year-old woman reported that “I feel like we’ve been ignored. I feel like we’re nonexistent.”

At the end of the study, some participants said they would probably spend less time watching television in the future. Those who came to that conclusion were mostly in the group that did the evaluating. Levy suggests it’s good for elders to become aware of television’s biased portrayal of aging and to question it.

Subliminal Protection

Resisting ageism consciously, however, may not work as well as being primed against it subconsciously, which can improve not only the way you feel about aging but also your physical abilities.

In 2014, Levy and her colleagues enlisted 100 adults between 61 and 99 in a new study. Once a week for four weeks, some of them were subliminally primed with positive words like “creative,” “spry” and “fit,” along with “old.” Each session lasted only about 15 minutes. She tested the subjects three weeks after the last session and found that—compared with the way they felt at the start of the experiment—they now felt more positive about older people in general and about their own aging. They had also improved in everyday physical abilities—for instance, they were better at keeping their balance. In fact, they’d improved more than individuals, similar in age, who had been part of a six-month exercise program.

In the same 2014 experiment, Levy asked other individuals to write short, weekly essays about active older people. The exercise was designed to challenge their ageist ideas explicitly, rather than subliminally. When Levy tested them three weeks after their last session, their stereotypes about aging and their feelings about themselves had improved but not as much as in the other group, and they showed no improvement in physical ability.

Apparently, subliminal priming reaches us on a deeper level than overt challenges to our stereotypes. But how long beyond three weeks do the effects last? And is this a practical way to combat internalized ageism? Will elders someday choose to prime themselves subliminally by downloading videos with positive words embedded?

Further research will eventually answer these questions. In the meanwhile, we can only do our best to recognize ageist prejudices and stereotypes when we come across them and to identify them as what they are—irrational ideas that can adversely affect our health and even shorten our lives.  


Guess Who’s Dead?

Television producer Norman Lear tackled racism, sexism and other hot issues in the 1970s with shows like All in the Family. In 2014, he complained that he couldn’t sell a new sitcom to today’s broadcasters because it was set in a retirement village and called Guess Who’s Dead?

“They don’t want to touch the demographic,” Lear said. Almost 92 himself, he noted that apparently there’s only room for one old person on network TV today—veteran actress Betty White.

Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.

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