By George Lorenzo
It is widely accepted that a healthy diet, exercise and regularly challenging your brain can decrease the odds for developing dementia. A growing body of research also shows that the way we think about aging is just as important. One of the national leaders in this research, Yale School of Health Professor Becca Levy, has found that exposure to negative and positive age stereotypes over time plays a crucial role in whether people develop signs of dementia in their later years.
In short, how you think about getting older can affect how you age.
What You Internalize Matters
In a frequently cited paper published in 2009, Levy introduced the term “stereotype embodiment theory.” She described the aging process as, in part, a social construct in which cultural influences in a person’s life lead to internalized attitudes about aging that have a long-term impact on health.
“We have found the risk of dementia goes up with people who have taken in more negative age stereotypes from their culture, but you also could think about it in the opposite way, that people who take in more positive age stereotypes seem to have a cognitive advantage over time,” Levy said.
A 2018 study out of Heidelberg University in Germany examined a measure that has also been used as a predictor of cognition by Levy’s team in the United States. It’s called “Attitude Toward Own Aging,” which is defined as “one’s personal evaluation of becoming older” and a predictor of cognitive function levels in old age.
The study analyzed data from another German study of adult development and aging, which followed 260 mentally healthy people with a mean age of 62 for more than 12 years. It found that a negative “attitude toward own aging significantly contributed to the likelihood of developing mild cognitive impairment over 12 years.”
4 Factors That Shape Perceptions of Older Adults
In a 2017 paper, Levy outlined how scientific research overwhelmingly suggests that our thinking about aging should become more positive over time, but, oddly enough, “the reverse is happening,” she says. Levy identified four categories that shape the perceptions of older adults in our society: health, intergenerational contact, legislation and social climate.
1. Health Levy pointed to significant improvements in the overall fitness and well-being of older adults during the past 100 years that are overshadowed by a multi-billion-dollar anti-aging industry. This field markets so-called “anti-aging” products while simultaneously promoting stigmatized, negative views of older adults, including showing them engaged in an aggressive fight against growing old.
2. Intergenerational contact Levy noted that, typically, when older adults interact more with younger generations, this has lead to less stereotyping between the two groups and better attitudes about each other. However, we’ve seen a decrease of intergenerational contact in modern times.
For example, a study showed that in the mid-1800s, 70 percent of older Americans lived with their adult children, while by 1990, only 16 percent did — a trend that continues today.
Research also is showing this is having a negative impact on older adults.
For instance, a 2012 University of California, San Francisco study found that out of 1,604 study participants with a mean age of 71, 43 percent reported feeling lonely, 32 percent reported lacking companionship and 25 percent reported feeling left out. Cultural separation statistics like these point to a decrease in meaningful intergenerational relationships, which typically generates negative stereotyping.
3. Legislation Levy explained that “age stereotypes and discrimination continue to prosper in the workplace,” despite the enactment of anti-ageism laws, such as the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, passed in 1967 and expanded in 1986.
4. Social climate Levy noted that age stereotypes and ageism persist today, even while society’s views on various minority groups have changed for the better over time. She referred to Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker’s “Humanitarian Revolution” theory, which he explained in his 2011 book Better Angels of Our Nature. In the book, Pinker claims there’s been a decrease in the “dehumanizing and demonization of minority groups,” that has “transformed Western culture.”
Yet, Levy notes, “given the sweep of this reported transformation, it should presumably include age stereotypes,” but it does not. She claimed that the so-called transformation “has excluded the old.”
Other Researchers Find Similar Results
In addition to Levy’s body of work on aging stereotypes, a contingent of psycho-social research from other countries, especially Germany, have been replicating her team’s studies.
“There are now a number of different scientists examining different populations in different countries that have also found these age stereotypes can impact older individuals’ health,” Levy said.
David Weiss, a faculty member at the Columbia University Aging Center, is one of those researchers. He has conducted and authored aging-stereotype-oriented studies from the Columbia University Aging Center and the Institute of Psychology at the University of Leipzig, where he works. In a paper published in October 2018, Weiss and researcher Anna K. Kornadt, of Bielefeld University in Germany, detailed an “age-stereotype internalization and dissociation” model, in which older adults can either internalize or dissociate themselves form age stereotypes.
“A commonly held assumption is that images of aging and age stereotypes operate as a self-fulfilling prophecy that comes with detrimental consequences for well-being and health,” Weiss wrote via email. He added that “negative age stereotypes often affect some individuals, but not others.”
Ways to Combat Negative Thinking
“Research suggests that a more flexible and malleable view of aging (‘age is just a number’) rather than a more fixed view of aging (‘aging is set in stone’) has positive consequences for cognition, well-being and health,” Weiss says.
Lead author of the Heidelberg study, Jelena Sophie Siebert, also offers suggestions for possible interventions: “Resist blaming age for things you can or cannot do,” she noted in an email. “Stay curious and social. Use it or lose it.”
Additionally, Siebert says, avoid “the widespread public view that declining cognitive and physical health is primarily due to calendar age,” because thinking along those lines has a tendency to bring about “a reduced sense of responsibility and a down-playing of the importance of a healthy lifestyle.”