Monday, October 09, 2006

The power of positive (and negative) thinking about aging

I wanted to pass on the graphic below, from the Thursday, Oct. 5 New York Times, taken from an article on robustness versus frailty in aging. Why do some people still run marathons at age 72 while others show 'frailty', i.e. weakness, exhaustion, weight loss, and loss of muscle mass and strength? In many cases undetected cardiovascular constrictions may be at issue. What is striking is the apparent correlation of positive attitude towards aging with staying healthy longer. This is yet another example of how anticipation can shape an actual outcome. (see the 9/11/06 post on construals and performance).

Click to enlarge picture.

On average, people who had a positive view of aging when 50 years old lived an average of 7.6 years longer than those who did not hold those views. It is, of course, hard to sort out what is cause and what is effect. Some of the people with negative attitude about aging may have intuited or know that they were not really physically well. Still it seems likely that self image and stereotypes of aging play a strong role.

From the article: "When Becca Levy, a psychologist at Yale University, began her work on stereotypes’ effects on the elderly, she was not sure that she would find anything of note. ... a method that was used to study the effects of stereotypes about race and gender. The idea is to flash provocative words too quickly for people to be aware they read them. In her first study, Dr. Levy tested the memories of 90 healthy older people. Then she flashed positive words about aging like “guidance,” “wise,” “alert,” “sage” and “learned” and tested them again. Their memories were better and they even walked faster. Next, she flashed negative words like “dementia,” “decline,” “senile,” “confused” and “decrepit.” This time, her subjects’ memories were worse, and their walking paces slowed.

Thomas Hess, a psychology professor at North Carolina State University, came to a similar conclusion about the effects of stereotypes of aging. In his studies, older people did significantly worse on memory tests if they were first told something that would bring to mind aging stereotypes. It could be as simple as saying the study was on how aging affects learning and memory. They did better on memory tests if Dr. Hess first told them something positive, like saying that there was not much of a decline in memory with age."

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating, isn't it? So maybe 60 is the new 40. I wrote about this research, too, as have several other folks. I think we're just at the forefront of some very interesting research and findings in this area, as more and more people decide to rebel against our cultural stereotypes about aging. Thanks for your insights.