Contra a popular assumption that feisty, grumpy old farts are likely to live longer than sweet docile passive ones, Judith Graham reviews recent work by Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University that suggests the opposite - basically that older people become what they think, what their age stereotypes are. Some edited clips:
She looked at a a database of 660 adults age 50 and older in Oxford, Ohio, who were followed for a period of 23 years, from 1975 to 1998, and reported in The Journal of Personal and Social Psychology in 2002 that those with positive age stereotypes lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative stereotypes. She also did a series of laboratory experiments with older people, exposing them subliminally to negative or positive stereotypes by flashing words associated with aging on a computer screen too fast for them to process consciously. Then these seniors were asked to perform a task. Those exposed to negative words such as "decrepit" had poorer handwriting, slower walking speeds, higher levels of cardiovascular stress and a greater willingness to reject hypothetical medical interventions that could prolong their lives. Those primed with positive words such as "wisdom" did much better.
Levy established that people with positive age stereotypes were more likely to eat a balanced diet, exercise, limit their alcohol consumption, stop smoking and get regular physical exams, and that they had a higher level of physical functioning over time. Results were controlled for other factors like illness, gender, race and socioeconomic status…In these papers, Dr. Levy hypothesized that positive age stereotypes are associated with a greater sense of control and that this enhanced seniors' sense of self efficacy -- their ability to remain captains of their own ship, as it were.