Age is just a number
American author and activist Betty Friedan once observed: “Aging is not ‘lost youth’ but a new stage of opportunity and strength.”
Those who share her optimism may find the pathway to longevity.
Scientist Becca Levy, BA ’87, a leading expert on the psychology of successful aging, says taking an upbeat attitude toward aging can not only improve your physical and mental health as you grow older ― but also may add nearly eight years to your lifespan.
She explains how our positive and negative age beliefs shape our behaviors, health, and, ultimately, our longevity in her new book Breaking the Age Code (William Morrow; April 12, 2022).
Levy also reveals that some health issues commonly associated with old age ― hearing loss, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease ― are the products of negative stereotypes and prejudices absorbed from our social surroundings. All too often, these fatalistic attitudes about the inevitability of declining health in later life become self-fulfilling prophecies.
“Age beliefs impact our health in ways big and small,” says Levy, who became interested in psychology as a U-M undergraduate. She completed her graduate work at Harvard, and is now a professor of epidemiology and of psychology at Yale.
“People who have more-positive beliefs tend to show benefits in health outcomes and healing compared to those who hold more-negative ones,” she says.
Over the past 20 years, Levy has conducted groundbreaking studies on different health conditions affected by attitudes toward aging. Her results show some surprising results:
- Cognition ― People who stress positive age beliefs enjoy better memory performance.
- Physical health ― Patients with favorable attitudes about aging are more likely to recover from severe disability.
- Mental health ― Individuals who see aging as a positive experience have lower stress levels.
- Longevity ― Younger people who adopt a positive outlook on aging live an average of 7.5 years longer.
While Levy’s research underscores the value of celebrating our advancing years as a time for creativity, exploration, and accomplishment, today’s reality is often quite different. All too frequently, personal views, cultural stereotypes, and institutional biases about aging are tilted in a negative direction.
In American society, old age is presented as something to be feared and avoided. Aging individuals are portrayed as fragile, forgetful, and a burden on society. The elderly are marginalized, ignored, and “put out to pasture.”
Levy describes this pervasive ageism in the U.S. and other countries as the “Silent Epidemic” because it operates, undetected, in so many different realms ― social media, advertising, pop culture, Hollywood, and health care.
Ageism as big business
During America’s early history, views of aging were generally positive. However, in the mid-1800s, this positivity began to wane, giving way to less-favorable age beliefs that have taken hold over time.
“The increase in negativity is due in part to the rise of advertisement and the growth of the antiaging industry,” says Levy, who has studied American age beliefs in written language spanning the past two centuries. “Companies have made a lot of money promoting negative images of aging as a way to sell their anti-aging products.”
The research firm Statista projects the global anti-aging market will generate more than $67 billion in 2022 by peddling pills, creams, tinctures, elixirs, hormonal supplements, and procedures that falsely claim to halt or even reverse aging.
The “medical disability” complex
Another source of ageism has been the increased “medicalization” of aging, Levy says.
“Advertisements typically present images of older people as patients and recipients of medical care,” she says. “These ads are not balanced by images showing the heterogeneity of older adults who come from diverse backgrounds and are engaged in different activities, such as work, volunteering, sports, and recreation.”
Television, movies, and social media have amplified misbeliefs about aging. Ageism has become “click bait” on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Agelining has relegated elderly residents to age-segregated senior housing where they are, in effect, “quarantined” from society.
Ageism in the workplace has cost many senior workers with years of valuable experience in their jobs, livelihoods, and feelings of self-worth. Two-thirds of workers in America said they have witnessed or personally experienced age discrimination in their place of work, according to an AARP survey.
Western medicine relies heavily on negative age stereotypes, with their narrative of inevitable decline, because it’s profitable, according to Levy.“The multibillion-dollar ‘medical disability complex’ is based on expensive procedures, devices, and pharmaceutical drugs, which are more profitable than prevention efforts,” she says. “When ageism is ignored, doctors are apt to dismiss treatable conditions, such as back pain or depression, as standard features of old age.”
This view of aging as a pathology can result in the undertreatment of elderly patients, she says.
Levy teamed up with an economist and statistician to put a price tag on the health costs resulting from ageism. They found it totaled $63 billion per year in the U.S., more than the cost of morbid obesity, one of America’s most expensive chronic conditions.
“The World Health Organization has called ageism the most prevalent and socially acceptable form of prejudice and discrimination today,” says Levy, who has testified before the U.S. Senate on the adverse effects of ageism. She also has contributed to briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in age-discrimination cases and has participated in United Nations discussions of ageism.
Dislodging the stereotypes
Despite the entrenched negative age stereotypes that permeate American society, Levy is convinced they can be dislodged and replaced by more-favorable views of aging and older people.
“The most important takeaway from my research is that we know age beliefs are malleable,” Levy says. “We can increase our awareness of them, challenge some negative ones, and strengthen some positive ones.”
She demonstrated in one lab study that exposing older participants to subliminal positive messages about aging improved their physical function, including walking and balance. Another study showed that positive age beliefs lowered stress and helped at-risk people ward off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Igniting an age liberation movement
The time has come to shift from an age-declining to an age-thriving mindset, according to Levy, who presents a blueprint for overcoming structural ageism in her book.
“I think we are getting closer to a tipping point where an age liberation movement will take hold,” she says. “Growing numbers of people are becoming aware and angry about ageism.”
National organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, the Gerontological Society of America, and HelpAge International, have begun issuing urgent warnings about the hazards of ageism. The Gray Panthers in New York City continue to confront age stereotypes and discrimination head-on. In addition, the World Health Organization recently launched its Campaign to Combat Ageism, which 194 countries have endorsed. Levy is serving as a scientific adviser to the campaign.
However, until the groundswell of opposition to structural ageism in our social and policy institutions gains traction, ordinary people will need tools to navigate, question, and challenge negative stereotypes and attitudes on aging.
Levy has developed an “ABC Method” that individuals can use to harness the power of their own positive age beliefs to improve their health. This approach consists of three stages:
- Increasing Awareness of negative age beliefs within and around us
- Placing Blame on ageism and its societal sources
- Challenging negative age beliefs
“As individuals acquire a greater sense of their value as older persons, they are more likely to participate in an age liberation movement,” Levy says. “The movement, in turn, is bound to further increase their sense of value as older persons. This cultural redefinition will contribute to a virtuous cycle.”