Stereotyping Older Adults May Shorten Their Lives

(p. D3) Dr. Robert N. Butler, a psychiatrist, gerontologist and founding director of the National Institute on Aging, coined the term “ageism” a half-century ago. It echoes “sexism” and “racism,” describing the stereotyping of and discrimination against older adults.

Among the mementos in Dr. Levy’s small office at Yale is a treasured photo of her and Dr. Butler, who died in 2010. One could argue that she is his heir.

A psychologist and epidemiologist, Dr. Levy has demonstrated — in more than 140 published articles over 30 years and in a new book, “Breaking the Age Code” — that ageism results in more than hurt feelings or even discriminatory behavior. It affects physical and cognitive health and well-being in measurable ways and can take years off one’s life.

. . .

Another memento in Dr. Levy’s office is a card on her bulletin board that reads, “Ask Me About 7.5.” The souvenir came from a Wisconsin anti-ageism campaign and refers to her 2002 longevity study, which for two decades followed hundreds of residents older than 50 in a small Ohio town. The study found that median survival was seven and a half years longer for those with the most positive beliefs about aging, compared with those having the most negative attitudes.

. . .

We absorb these stereotypes from an early age, through disparaging media portrayals and fairy tales about wicked old witches. But institutions — employers, health care organizations, housing policies — express a similar prejudice, enforcing what is called “structural ageism,” Dr. Levy said. Reversing that will require sweeping changes — an “age liberation movement,” she added.

But she has found reason for optimism: Damaging ideas about age can change. Using the same subliminal techniques that measure stereotypical attitudes, her team has been able to enhance a sense of competence and value among older people. Researchers in many other countries have replicated their results.

For the full commentary, see:

Paula Span. “How Ageism Can Take Years Off Seniors’ Lives.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 26, 2022): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated April 28, 2022, and has the title “Exploring the Health Effects of Ageism.” Where there is a slight difference in wording between versions, the passages quoted above are from the online version.)

Levy’s book mentioned in the commentary above is:

Levy, Becca. Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live. New York: William Morrow, 2022.

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