Breaking the Age Code

From The Wall Street Journal:

Jake Kasdan’s 2019 movie “Jumanji: The Next Level” opens with returning hero Spencer already at low ebb—he’s lonely at college, browbeaten at work and sharing his bedroom with Grandpa Eddie. But the thing that pushes him over the edge, driving him back into the dangerous alternate reality of the movie’s title, is the idea that life’s inevitable decline has already begun.

“Getting old sucks,” Eddie says, as he fiddles with the portable oxygen machine on his bedside table. “Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

Social psychologist Becca Levy spends much of “Breaking the Age Code” doing exactly that, weaving together case studies and her own research to demonstrate that old age doesn’t have to suck at all. The expectation that aging means decay, Ms. Levy shows, is actually a major reason it so often does—our negative view of aging is literally killing us. Chipping away at this widespread and deeply ingrained conviction has a measurable effect on health after just 10 minutes.

The first part of the book is so full of flabbergasting results that they become almost monotonous. In 2002 Ms. Levy combined results from the Ohio Longitudinal Study on Aging and Retirement with data from the National Death Index to reveal that, on average, people with the most positive views of aging were outliving those with the most negative views by 7½ years—an extraordinary 10% of current life expectancy in the United States. In 2012 memory tests showed that positive age beliefs allowed people to outperform their peers with negative beliefs by 30%. The stereotype of failing memory is so strong in the West that occasional lapses are called “senior moments.” But in China, where attitudes to the elderly are much more positive than in the U.S., Ms. Levy says older people “can expect [their] memory to work basically as well as [their] grandchildren’s.” Experiments in the lab, across cultures, and following participants over many years give similar results for dementia, hearing and physical function.

Ms. Levy leavens this research summary with portraits of inspiring elders, from the actor who started memorizing the whole of “Paradise Lost” when he was 60, to the 91-year-old nun who runs triathlons. She also shows the scientific method at work, as when she describes how statistical analysis helped her establish that positive age beliefs bring better health—instead of the other way around—and how lab results demonstrated that those who were exposed to positive age beliefs walked faster and with better balance.

A combination of factors makes us “particularly susceptible . . . to negative age beliefs,” Ms. Levy argues, citing the World Health Organization bulletin that declared ageism “the most widespread and socially accepted prejudice today.” We first encounter ageism when we are least likely to resist it, decades before it might apply to us and our peers. Older people are often segregated in Western society for living, working and socializing, leading younger people to conclude these divisions are “caused by meaningful, inherent differences between age groups.” And these stereotypes are then reinforced over the course of our lives, as we are “bombarded by messages in advertisements and media about older people.”

All is not lost, however, for despite the “pervasiveness and depth” of ageism in Western society, these beliefs are “in fact quite brittle: they can be chipped at, shifted and remade.” In one striking study from 1996, Ms. Levy primed some people with positive words such as “wise” or “alert,” and others with negative ones such as “senile” or “confused.” Ten minutes of priming saw participants in the positive stereotypes group improve in memory tests, while the negative stereotypes group declined.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

2 thoughts on “Breaking the Age Code”

  1. Oh, good, PG.

    With this one quote, “on average, people with the most positive views of aging were outliving those with the most negative views by 7½ years,” you have added useful and usable time to the lifespans of all your readers, more or less depending on how pessimistic they started out.

    It makes the daily effort to ignore some of the physical and mental problems I live with, worth it. I wondered – and then went on to a day improved by replacing negativity with gratitude for what is still there, prayers for those in current crisis, and the determination to do the best possible with what I have. It’s putting currency into the bank.

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