Your Attitude About Aging Could Add 7.5 Years to Your Life
One thing this article seems to be saying is that a problem you have in life is not your problem per se, but how you choose to view your problem – a perspective I’ve begun to appreciate in the last few years.
April 23, 2022
By Haley Goldberg
When Yale professor Becca Levy began conducting her decades-long research on the psychology of aging, she would routinely ask people to think of five words to describe an older person. In the US, the most common answer was “memory loss.” In China, it was “wisdom.”
As her research would find, the answer to this question had major impact. Your answer could fundamentally change how you age — even adding 7.5 years to your life.
In the new book “Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live,” Levy draws on decades of research and interviews to show how positive age beliefs are key to enjoying our golden years — and maintaining our health.
“In study after study I conducted, I found that older people with more-positive perceptions of aging performed better physically and cognitively than those with more-negative perceptions,” Levy writes. “They were more likely to recover from severe disability, they remembered better, they walked faster, and they even lived longer.”
Levy’s findings are timelier than ever. For the first time in history, there are now more people worldwide over the age of 64 than under the age of 5. Some have even referred to it as a “silver tsunami” or “gray wave.”
But as we live longer than ever, age beliefs in the US are only becoming more negative. From TV shows to advertisements to who gets access to quality medical treatment and employment opportunities — ageism abounds and American culture treats old age as if it inevitably means “forgetfulness, weakness, and decline.”
As one older Englishwoman wrote to Levy: “Frankly I feel ashamed to be old. Why? Because society tells me it is shameful.”
When we reach old age ourselves, Levy says the age stereotypes we’ve absorbed in our youth become a self-fulfilling prophecy: We’ve primed ourselves to expect our minds and bodies to decline in old age — so we’re less likely to engage in behaviors that keep us healthy, seeing it as futile.
The good news: No matter your age, Levy’s research shows your age beliefs aren’t fixed. Levy found we all hold positive beliefs about aging — they just need activation.
And one key way to develop more positive beliefs is to celebrate older people who are bucking negative age stereotypes and proving that getting older can be great.
… The study spanned over 20 years, and Levy found that participants with the most positive age beliefs were living on average 7.5 years longer than participants with the most negative age beliefs.
Age beliefs determined the participant’s life spans even more than gender, race, socioeconomic status, age, and health — and they added an even greater survival advantage than some of our most-touted longevity hacks, like lowering cholesterol (which adds an extra four years of life) or avoiding smoking (an extra three years of life).
… In her findings, published in 2002, Levy penned a call to action, writing that ageism deserved to be treated as if it were an “unidentified virus” that was found to shorten our lives by seven years.
… In her lab, Levy found that older participants who were primed with positive stereotypes of old age — including words like “wise” and “alert” — for ten minutes improved their performance on a subsequent memory task. Meanwhile: Participants primed with negative stereotypes, like “senile” and “confused,” saw a decline in memory performance.
The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA) also showed that over a period of 38 years, people with positive age beliefs at the start of the study experienced 30% better memory scores in old age than people with negative age beliefs.
The BLSA also helped Levy uncover that participants with negative age beliefs were more likely to develop biomarkers of Alzheimer’s — and brain dissections showed that “their hippocampi, the part of the brain responsible for memory, shrank three times as fast.”
… When Levy interviewed Sister Madonna, the nun shared that her father inspired her to stay active into older age — he rowed and played handball into his 70s. “It doesn’t make sense to fear aging, since you never know what lies ahead of you,” Sister Madonna told Levy.
It’s a similar perspective shared by Wilhelmina Delco. The now-90-year-old former Texas politician took up swimming for the first time at the age of 80, earning her the title of “the old lady who swims at the Y.”
… Levy found that people with negative age beliefs exercise less, and a longitudinal study showed that people over the age of 50 with positive age beliefs had better body movement over a period of 18 years than people of the same age with negative age beliefs.
One of her lab experiments even showed that participants primed with positive age beliefs for 10 minutes “immediately showed faster walking speeds and better balance.”
Levy’s conclusion: The belief that we can’t be active in old age is a myth. “Whether you decide to start going for runs at sixty, hop in the pool for the first time at seventy, or go on walks at any age, it matters less when and what you do than that you build up positive age beliefs and trust that your body will respond in kind,” she writes.
(Link): When You’re in Imbalanced, Unfair Relationships – You’re the Free Therapist, The Supportive, Sounding Board Who Listens to Other People’s Non-Stop Complaining, But They Don’t Listen to You – re: The Toilet Function of Friendship