The way these internalized attitudes about aging affect us physically is a focus within a growing field in social psychology known as mind-body studies. In the next few months, the World Health Organization is expected to publish the results of a global investigation of ageism discrimination toward the aged, akin to racism and sexism that will address how to fight the prejudice. The report will also outline the myriad ways that ageist attitudes can affect the health and well-being of older people.
Psychologist Becca Levy is a contributor to the forthcoming WHO report and has spent her career linking negative aging attitudes to such measures as walking speed in older people, a greater likelihood of developing the brain changes of Alzheimer’s disease and even a reduction in life span.
But it’s not all grim; Levy, at the Yale School of Public Health, has also shown that something as simple as subliminal exposure to age-positive words can lead to physical improvements in older people of the sort that typically come about only after a program of regular exercise. If Levy and other scientists are correct, putting a more positive spin on our general view of aging might make a profound difference in the health Source: B. Levy/J. of Personality and Social Psychol.1996
It seems almost too good to be true to think that a simple shift in mind-set could make a serious dent in the $702 billion spent annually on Medicare, 90 percent of which is for older people with multiple chronic diseases. But that’s what some of the most surprising mind-body findings suggest: A more positive attitude toward aging leads to improvements in older people’s memory, gait, balance, speed and a quality that Levy refers to as will to live.
Levy began research in this field during graduate school in the 1990s, when she first assessed the physical impact of ageism using a technique she called “age-stereotype activation.” She wanted to test the hypothesis that holding ageist attitudes might be a literal health hazard for older people.
First she recruited a couple dozen people of all ages living near Harvard University, where she was studying social psychology, to brainstorm words that represented positive and negative stereotypes of old age. Decrepit, incompetent and decline were among the 12 they settled on as both relevant to aging and negative; accomplished and sage were among the 12 deemed both relevant to aging and positive.
Then she brought into her lab 90 adults ages 60 to 90 three-quarters from the Boston metro area, one-quarter from rural Vermont and randomly assigned them to be exposed to either the negative or positive terms, interspersed with a few neutral words like “between.
We put them in front of a computer and flashed the words at the level of perception without awareness, Levy says, describing the technique she also used 20 years later for her study using age-positive words as therapy. The words flashed so quickly on the screen that they appeared only as a blur.
This well-tested semantic priming technique operated below the level of consciousness to get the subject thinking of aging in a particular way, as either a benefit or burden. I designed that method after reading about research that was done activating race stereotypes, she says. In race relations, the technique, which has been the subject of some controversy (SN: 4/22/06, p. 250), has been used to identify an underlying prejudice known as implicit bias.
When applied to older people, implicit bias has a particularly cruel twist: If you live long enough, it becomes prejudice against a group you now belong to. Levy was interested in whether this prejudice, which pervades so much of Western culture, would eventually have physical effects on an older person’s aging body.
Subjects exposed subliminally to negative age stereotypes showed a decline in performance compared with their results on earlier memory tests (taken right before exposure to the loaded words), Levy found. Those exposed subliminally to positive age stereotypes showed an improvement.
The biggest negative effects of the downer words were in tests of immediate recall (an average drop of 1.77 points, on a 7-point scale) and delayed recall (down 1.11 points on a 7-point scale). The biggest improvements in the positive-bias group were in tests of immediate recall (an average increase of 0.98 points on a 7-point scale) and photo recall (up 1.4 points on an 8-point scale).
When she wrote up her findings in 1996 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Levy offered two ways of looking at these results. The pessimistic view was that the stereotype that memory decline is inevitable can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the optimistic reading was that memory decline is not inevitable. In fact, she wrote, “the studies show that memory performance can be enhanced in old age … as the consequence of a brief priming intervention.
In Western culture, the most deeply held aging stereotypes tend to be the negative ones. Levy and a grad student in computational linguistics, Reuben Ng, now at the National University of Singapore, did a linguistic analysis of 400 million words in written material collected from the past 200 years. The words describing older people grew progressively more negative over time, the two reported with colleagues in 2015 in PLOS ONE.
As aging became seen as a medical problem and the proportion of the population over age 65 grew, both changes were significantly associated with the increase in negative age stereotypes, the researchers wrote. The upward trajectory of age-stereotype negativity makes a case for remedial action on a societal level.