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May 3, 2022

The striking toll of 'ageism,' according to research

Daily Briefing

    Decades of research suggests that age discrimination "can take years off one's life." Writing for the New York Times, Paula Span details how ageism can affect physical and cognitive health.

    Research suggests 'ageism' can impact longevity

    For over 30 years, Becca Levy, a psychologist, epidemiologist, and professor at the Yale School of Public Health, has studied the relationship between aging and health.

    In over 140 published articles and a new book called "Breaking the Age Code," Levy has demonstrated that ageism can cause more than hurt feelings. "It affects physical and cognitive health and well-being in measurable ways and can take years off one's life," Span writes.

    "Just as we have learned in recent decades that structures are biased against women and people of color, leading to worsened health outcomes, she has shown that negative feelings about old age lead to bad outcomes in older people," said Louise Aronson, a geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco.

    In Levy's office, there is a card on her bulletin board that reads, "Ask Me About 7.5," which refers to her 2002 longevity study that followed hundreds of adults older than 50 for two decades in a small Ohio town. According to the study, median survival was seven and a half years longer among those with the most positive beliefs about aging, compared with those who had the most negative attitudes.

    "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.

    3 negative effects of ageism

    To measure attitudes surrounding aging, Levy and her colleagues have used a variety of methods, including questionnaires, computer programs, small experimental samples, and health-record tracking for thousands through large national surveys.

    Their research has found that—in addition to reduced longevity—ageism is associated with:

    • Cardiovascular events, including heart failure, strokes, and heart attacks. In the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, which included health records for almost 400 participants under 50, "we've been able to follow people for 40 years," Levy said. "They had twice as high a risk if, at young ages, they'd taken in negative stereotypes about aging."
    • Physical function. In a study of 100 older adults—with an average age of 81—individuals who were exposed to positive age stereotypes every week for a month received better scores on tests of gait, strength, and balance, compared with control groups. "In fact, those receiving positive exposure improved more than a similar-aged experimental group that exercised for six months," Span writes. Similarly, in a study of New Haven residents over 70, those with positive age beliefs were more likely to have a full recovery from severe disability than those with negative beliefs.
    • Alzheimer's disease. In the Baltimore study, some participants had regular brain scans, and some even donated their brains for autopsies. "Those who held more negative age beliefs at younger ages exhibited a sharper decline in the volume of the hippocampus, the brain region associated with memory," Span writes. "They also exhibited, after their deaths, more of the brain plaques and tangles that are Alzheimer's biomarkers."

    Levy and her colleagues estimate that age discrimination, negative age stereotypes, and negative self-perceptions of age result in $63 billion in annual excess spending on common health conditions.

    An 'age liberation movement'

    According to Span, many people absorb negative stereotypes from a young age, "through disparaging media portrayals and fairy tales about wicked old witches." However, Levy noted that institutions, including employers, health care organizations, and housing policies, exhibit a similar form of prejudice with "structural ageism." Reversing this type of ageism will require widespread changes—an "age liberation movement," Levy added.

    However, "[d]amaging ideas about age can change," Span writes. "Using the same subliminal techniques that measure stereotypical attitudes, [Levy's] team has been able to enhance a sense of competence and value among older people. Researchers in many other countries have replicated their results."

    "You can't create beliefs, but you can activate them," by exposing people to words like "active" and "full of life," rather than "grumpy" or "helpless," to describe older adults, Levy said.

    "Even though toddlers already have negative stereotypes about age, they're not set in stone," Levy said. "They're malleable. We can shift them." (Span, New York Times, 4/28)

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