In the mid-1990s Becca Levy began a series of experiments to show the importance of how we think about aging.
Levy, who was an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University at the time, later published her findings in a 2002 edition of The Journal of Personal and Social Psychology.
Her research involved exposing elderly people to subliminal messages about aging and then asking them to perform a task. Those who had been exposed to negative words such as “decrepit” were found to walk slower, have poorer handwriting, and other behaviors associated with negative stereotypes of aging. On the other hand, those who were first primed with positive words about aging (like ‘wisdom’) performed better.
A more ambitious experiment occurred when Levy tracked 660 adults who were fifty and older. She monitored these participants for 23 years between 1975 to 1998. At the start of the study she had her participants fill out questionaires to see whether they held negative or positive views about aging. For example, they had to say “yes” or “no” to statements like “as you get older, you get less useful” or “things keep getting worse as I get older.”
As the years progressed, those with positive age stereotypes lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative stereotypes.
This isn’t as simple as mind over matter. Some of Dr. Levy’s research has shown that those with a positive idea about aging were more likely to make lifestyle choices that reflected that positive idea and to resist the notion of inevitable decline. In other words, how we think of ourselves affects the type of people we become. That is why it is so important to have a positive understanding of aging. More about that in my next post.