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Hazardous to Your Health: Yale Psychologist has Demonstrated that Age Discrimination Can Take Years Off One’s Life

Old people in America have long been the butt of jokes and the victims of derogatory and even demeaning treatment. This pattern of discrimination based on age has a name: ageism. What’s more, ageism has a cost, one that can literally shorten the lives of those affected by it.

That was the unsettling conclusion in this recent New York Times article, written by reporter Paula Span. She profiles a Yale University researcher who has studied age-related issues for more than three decades. Her research clearly demonstrates that ageism results in much more than hurt feelings – it can actually take years off the lives of its victims.

(Please note that accessing the New York Times article may require a paid subscription. We’ve done our best to summarize Span’s helpful article for readers of the AgingOptions Blog.)

Mixed Images of Old Age Among the Young

What five words come to mind when you think of an “old person”? This is the basis of a yearly exercise that Yale professor Becca Levy conducts with her health and aging classroom students. She tells them to think of the first five words—but not to think too much—and she writes them on the board.

Span writes, “These include admiring words like ‘wisdom’ and ‘creative’ and roles such as ‘grandmother.’ But senility comes up a lot, Dr. Levy said recently, and a lot of physical infirmity and decline: stooped over, sick, decrepit.”

A half-century ago, psychiatrist and gerontologist Dr. Robert N. Butler coined the term “ageism” to describe the stereotyping and discrimination against older adults. Since Dr. Butler passed away in 2010, Dr. Levy has taken up his cause and brought his work into the future. Some could call her Butler’s “heir”.

Three Decades of Research Show Ageism’s Effects

Ageism isn’t just a matter of hurt feelings, and it isn’t just about outright discrimination either. Dr. Levy has published more than 140 articles in a span of 30 years and a new book, Breaking the Age Code, that demonstrate ageism’s true physical and cognitive health effects. Most importantly: it can take years off of a person’s life. 

San Francisco geriatrician Dr. Louise Aronson said, “Just as we have learned in recent decades that structures are biased against women and people of color, leading to worsened health outcomes, [Dr. Levy] has shown that negative feelings about old age lead to bad outcomes in older people.”

“Ask Me About 7.5”

Along with a treasured photo of Levy with her mentor, Dr. Butler, the bulletin board in Levy’s office has another memento: a card that reads “Ask Me About 7.5.” Span explains, “The souvenir came from a Wisconsin anti-ageism campaign and refers to her 2002 longevity study which for two decades followed hundreds of residents older than 50 in a small Ohio town. The study found that median survival was actually seven and a half years longer for those with the most positive beliefs about aging, compared with those having the most negative attitudes.”

Levy’s work, and the “7.5” stat, have had far-reaching implications across the field of gerontology. “I use that in practically every talk I give because it’s shocking,” said Tracey Gendron, who chairs the gerontology department at Virginia Commonwealth University. “[Levy has] truly been a pioneer.”

Measuring Ageism and its Consequences

Thanks to the work of Dr. Levy and her team, ageism has been connected to a variety of health effects, including cardiovascular events and higher risk of strokes and heart attacks, physical function (reduced balance and strength), magnified risk of Alzheimer’s disease, and reduced longevity across the board.

They’ve found that overall, people who believe negative stereotypes of aging are far more likely to decline sharply as they age than people with positive ideas about aging.

“Dr. Levy and her team measure attitudes about aging in a variety of ways,” Span writes. “They use questionnaires or the same five-word exercise she gives to her students. They test subliminal biases using computer programs that flash negative or positive words about aging so quickly that participants inadvertently absorb them. They have used small experimental samples of a few dozen people and tracked health records for thousands through big national surveys.”

Better Attitudes Trigger Better Outcomes

A positive view of aging has a remarkable effect on the body and the brain. In one study, it was proved that people with positive age beliefs have as low a risk for Alzheimer’s as those who do not carry the APOE4 gene, a genetic marker for high-risk of Alzheimer’s.

Span writes, “The list goes on. Older people with positive views of aging perform better on hearing tests and memory tasks. They are less likely to develop psychiatric illnesses like anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.”

She adds, “In fact, Dr. Levy and her colleagues estimate that age discrimination, negative age stereotypes and negative self-perceptions of aging lead to $63 billion in excess annual spending on common health conditions like cardiovascular and respiratory disease, diabetes and injuries.”

Insensitive Stranger Creates Lasting Damage

The origins of Levy’s research focus may lie with the story of visiting her high-energy grandmother in Florida several years ago. Span writes, “They were shopping together when Grandma Horty fell over a crate with jagged metal corners that had been left in the aisle. The resulting cut on her leg, though bloody, proved superficial. But when her grandmother suggested to the grocery owner that he not leave crates about, he responded that old people fall all the time, and maybe they shouldn’t be walking around.”

The comment—though offhanded, perhaps—stayed with Levy’s grandmother. From that moment on, Span recounts, “Her grandmother appeared to question her competence, asking Dr. Levy to take over chores she normally handled herself. The incident prompted Dr. Levy to contemplate how cultural values and people’s own ideas about age might affect them.”

Structural ageism is the institutional version of the ageism we all absorb from an early age, including stereotypes about frailty, senility, and even wicked old witches. In structural ageism, employers, health care organizations, and housing policies express this prejudice in their decision-making, which can have desperate effects on older people.

“Reversing that will require sweeping changes — an ‘age liberation movement,’” Span writes, quoting Dr. Levy.

Stereotypes Can Change, Dr. Levy Says

It’s not all bad news. Span writes, “Damaging ideas about age can change. Using the same subliminal techniques that measure stereotypical attitudes, her team has been able to enhance a sense of competence and value among older people. Researchers in many other countries have replicated their results.” All it takes is changing the way people perceive old age through using descriptions like “active” and “full of life” instead of “grumpy” or “helpless.”

“Could a society undertake such a mission?” Span posits. “How long could the benefits of such interventions last? Would people need regular boosters to help associate aging with experience and possibilities instead of with nervous jokes? The research, by Dr. Levy and other scholars, continues.”

“Even though toddlers already have negative stereotypes about age, they’re not set in stone,” Dr. Levy said. “They’re malleable. We can shift them.”

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(originally reported at www.nytimes.com)