Do ageist expectations affect our health? Of course.

Once I got past the title (“What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?”) and the creepy photographs of faux-old toddlers—the ageist equivalent of blackface? Or “grayface?” as my colleague Andrea Charise proposed?—I read this article in the New York Times magazine with great interest. And mixed feelings.

Mixed feelings, because age is of course not just a mind-set. To imply that we can think ourselves out of Parkinson’s or poverty is delusory and politically problematic. As cultural critic Barbara Ehrenreich writes in Bright-sided, her takedown of the power of positive thinking, “If optimism is the key to material success, and if you can achieve an optimist outlook through the discipline of positive thinking, then there is no excuse for failure.” In other words, if you’re poor or you can’t find a new job or you let cancer do you in, it’s your fault, a failure of attitude and will, not that of a heartless market economy or a shredded social safety net. Yet the way we grow old is governed by a whole range of variables—genes, environment, and personality, compounded by class, gender, race, luck, and the churnings of the global economy—over which we have varying degrees of control, and to pretend otherwise lets the government and society off the hook.

But there’s fascinating research into the connection between mind and body, with important implications for how well we age. Much of it has been conducted by Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer, whose pioneering work challenged the 1950s biomedical model that separated mind and body. In a landmark 1976 study, Langer gave houseplants to two groups of residents in a New England nursing home. One group was charged with tending the plant, and also given input into their daily schedules. The other was told that the staff would care for the plants, and they weren’t given any choice in their schedules. Eighteen months later, twice as many of the olders in the first group were alive as in the control group. When their competence is questioned, people become less so, developing learned helplessness.

The New York Times article focuses on a 1981 experiment in which eight men in their 70s spent five days immersed in 1959-style surroundings, right down to Ed Sullivan on a black-and-white TV, and were urged to fully inhabit that time frame. When the men emerged from this intense intervention, their dexterity and eyesight improved, they sat taller, and they looked younger—remarkable changes. As Langer told journalist Bruce Grierson, “The men had ‘put their mind in an earlier time,’ and their bodies went along for the ride.” To further explore this relationship, Langer and her colleagues designed a study set in a hair salon. Research assistants took the blood pressure of 47 women between ages 27 and 83 before they had their hair done.  Once coiffed, the women filled out a questionnaire about their appearance, and had their blood pressure taken again. Women who thought they looked younger after the makeover had lower readings.

This is a starkly measurable effect of internalizing a lifetime of negative messages about aging past youth. The emotional and physical consequences are disastrous, and not just for women whose hairdressers don’t happen to be magicians. Brainwashed to equate aging with decline on every front, we seldom challenge the underlying stereotypes, even when experience tells a different story, and often before physical decline actually sets in. In another experiment, for example, social scientists primed a group of college students with negative age stereotypes by having them unscramble sentences that included words like forgetful, Florida, and bingo. The students then walked to the elevator measurably more slowly than a control group! Steps slowed simply because a subliminal script said it was time to totter.  

Yale psychologist and age scholar Becca Levy calls this kind of behavior “stereotype embodiment theory.Using subliminally presented words associated with wise (positive) or senile (negative) images, she’s demonstrated that older people exposed to the positive messages showed better recall and more confidence in their abilities than those exposed to negative ones. The decline has nothing to do with physiology. It’s psychological. Borne out by research on memory loss in general,  the effect of cultural expectations on recall and performance is powerful. It’s the same reason 15-year-old girls excel on science tests in countries where they don’t face strong gender bias.  Unchallenged, these beliefs and opinions become fixed, forming what psychologists call “premature cognitive commitments”—mindsets that we’re unlikely to reconsider even when it would work to our own benefit and even when it affects actual behavior.

A mantra of public health and aging policy is “more healthy years, not years without health.” As social science has amply demonstrated, attitudes towards age and aging—both internalized and in the culture at large—significantly affect that health outcome. Imagine the benefits to health and human potential of overturning ageist stereotypes before they distort our sense of self, shortening steps and crippling self-image. Imagine how much a powerful counter-narrative would do to increase not just lifespan but “healthspan.”. 


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