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July 2018
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Adding Life to Years
by Dr. Lawrence J. Weiss
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The Secret to Successful Aging

Dr. Lawrence J. Weiss
Dr. Lawrence J. Weiss

I’m out shopping for a birthday card for one of my friends. She’s turning 60. Lots of choices of old negative image persons. I thought of picking up some these black balloons that herald the Grim Reaper. We’re all familiar with these kind of cards and gags. Most of us consider them pretty harmless. They’re just poking fun at a common human experience, growing old, right? As everyone knows, when you get to be a certain age, your mind and your body inevitably fail. Actually, if you believe that – and don’t be embarrassed because almost all of us do – you’re engaging in ageism. Ageism is no different from racism or sexism. It’s about people looking at you and prejudging your character, your abilities, maybe even your beliefs based on your appearance in a negative way.

We don’t often think that stereotypes of older age could be harmful, but they are. One study found that employers evaluating applicants with identical qualifications were more than 40 percent more likely to hire the younger worker than the older. How does a society maintain respect for experience and age? What can it do to give aging a more favorable meaning? These are crucial questions for us, where many people, rightly, fear aging because of the demotions they anticipate suffering. Despite attempts to valorize aging, our society is gripped by the implacable ideology of decline: in the age of Alzheimer’s, decline insists that longevity is no great boon. Older people are often considered a “burden”. Ageism may be the last acceptable bigotry. Sometimes flaunted, it is more often overlooked.

One ethical imperative of any cultural system is to value aging through the life course. Otherwise, as the inventor of the term ageism, Robert Butler, put it, in the painfully questioning title of his 1975 book, “why survive. . .As an age critic, I am the reluctant chronicler of the avoidable decline of a remarkably impressive nationwide ethical and ontological system—a result manipulated and justified in part by treating aging, in the profession, and in ordinary life, as a decline.”

However, if people become fatalistic about aging, if they internalize the negative stereotypes of aging being thrust upon us by the outside world, our performance will potentially decline faster than our biology. When it comes to aging, sometimes you’re only as old as you– subliminally–think! Negative stereotypes don’t just hurt people’s feelings, they can undermine people’s performance. Tell a student that his performance on the Graduate Record Exam is diagnostic of intellectual ability, and his test performance will decline compared to similar students informed that the test is non-diagnostic. People are influenced by negative stereotypes about race, intelligence, and sex. The same stereotype threat has been shown to undermine the performance of women taking math tests, or Caucasians engaging in athletic endeavors. In one study researchers did not promote explicit thinking about healthy aging but, instead, promoted such thinking implicitly and subliminally. They had participants look at a computer and tell them whether a light flashed above or below a bull’s eye at the center of screen. Unknown to the participants, the flashes were words–neutral words for people in the control condition, and words like “spry” for people in the positive aging group. Once a week for four or five weeks, participants came to the lab and went through this exercise. The researchers tracked attitudes and physical functioning over that period and another three weeks. They found significant improvement in attitudes towards aging among people receiving the subliminal words associated with healthy aging. What’s more, participants exposed to the subliminal words got physically stronger over time. In fact, these benefits persisted, even grew, in the three weeks after the intervention ceased.

If negative stereotypes can undermine performance, then maybe positive stereotypes can improve performance. That was the question posed by Becca Levy and colleagues in a study published in Psychological Science. Specifically, they wondered whether older people (60 or over) would experience improvements in physical functioning if exposed to positive stereotypes about aging. So they primed people to think about the upside of aging by asking them to write about “a senior who is mentally and physically healthy.” An independent group of people read the essays and found them to exhibit very positive views of aging.

One of the most widespread misperceptions about older adulthood is that conditions like loss of muscle control or memory are just natural stages of the aging process. They're not. They're symptoms of diseases, which can and should be treated. Don’t assume otherwise, and don’t let any doctor or nurse or friend tell you otherwise. Ageist attitudes have proven far more durable. A survey two decades ago that aimed to uncover implicit attitudes (those that people aren’t conscious of) found that 95 percent had negative views of old people, a higher proportion than for implicit racism or sexism.

old folk walking

A survey just of older adults found that more than 77 percent of them had experienced one or more incidents of ageism. Some of the more common complaints were having a doctor or nurse assume an ailment was caused by age, being patronized or talked down to, and being told a joke or receiving a birthday card that poked fun at old people.

The book Ageism: Stereotyping and Prejudice Against Older Persons describes a raft of social-psychological concepts that have been applied to ageism. These include “compassionate ageism,” which is the tendency for younger people to view elders as being needier or more disadvantaged than they actually are; and “emotion overgeneralization,” in which older adults’ faces are perceived to be sadder than younger adults’.

Studies show that ageism is so pervasive that it even exists among elders. After a lifetime of being exposed to negative stereotypes about aging, many people apparently end up conforming to them. This phenomenon can actually damage people’s health and wellbeing. For example, research has found that older adults exposed to negative age stereotypes tend to have worse memory performance and less will to live than those exposed to positive stereotypes. Also, their heart rate and blood pressure are higher when stressed. Another study found that even among healthy older people, those exposed to positive age stereotypes walked more energetically. Walking speed is often used as a marker for overall fitness and has been shown to be a predictor of short-term mortality.

Therefore, what better way to add life to years than to think and act positive about your age! Yes, I am 71 and this is what a healthy 71 year old should look and act like.

Lawrence J. Weiss, Ph.D. is CEO of the Center for Healthy Aging. Dr. Weiss welcomes your comments on this column. Write to him at larry@addinglifetoyears.com or c/o Center for Healthy Aging, 11 Fillmore Way, Reno, NV 89519.