How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and How Well You Live

From a Wall Street Journal review by Ellen Gamerman of the book by Becca Levy titled “Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & How Well You Live”:

Want to live an extra seven years? Think nice things about old people.

A new book on the psychology of aging argues that positive beliefs about growing old can add an average seven-and-a-half years to a person’s lifespan. Such good thoughts give the mind greater power over longevity than steps like lowering blood pressure (which adds roughly four years, according to the book), cutting cholesterol (four years), quitting smoking (three years) or losing weight (one year).

Becca Levy’s “Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live,” uses scientific research to explore the impact of negative age beliefs on memory and hearing loss, cardiovascular issues and dementia.

What she found was a startlingly powerful mind-body connection, which is sometimes worsened by ageism and negative stereotypes about the elderly that can sabotage one’s future.

The book released last week offers hope for those who feel discouraged by the effects of aging, showing how people can improve their health by shifting their outlooks. It outlines what individuals and society can do to counter misconceptions about growing old. It examines cultures that revere the elderly, argues that genetics aren’t necessarily destiny and shows how physical accomplishments are possible even in old age.

Dr. Levy is a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health and a psychology professor at Yale University. She spoke with The Wall Street Journal about her findings.

How do negative thoughts affect health in older people?

People who take in more-positive age beliefs from their culture tend to eat healthier diets, exercise more, and they are more likely to take prescribed medications. When we strengthen positive age beliefs, people tend to have lower levels of different kinds of stress biomarkers—lower levels of cortisol over time, lower cardiovascular response to stress. And we have found evidence that they have higher levels of well-being and self-efficacy that can lead to beneficial health changes over time.

You challenge assumptions about old people and memory. Is the “senior moment” a myth?

The term is often used for labeling any kind of forgetfulness, which we know we can experience at any age. There are a lot of different reasons for it—somebody was distracted or stressed or angry—that can reduce our ability to encode information.

Some studies show that the ability to remember vocabulary and metacognition, or the ability to intentionally think about your own thought processes, can improve in later life. I talked with people for the book who showed some impressive examples of later-life cognitive mastery, like the 84-year-old actor who memorized the 60,000-word poem “Paradise Lost.”

Given the harm that can come from getting set aside and labeled as “elderly,” would it be better if we did away with things like early-bird specials and senior discounts? 

If we are celebrating older people as having contributed to society and we want to find ways to recognize that and give them a little benefit, that seems like it could be a good thing, as long as it’s done in a way that is respectful.

There are other things I’ve seen that infantilize older people, like a menu my parents showed me with a section that said, “For people over 65 and under age 12, these are the recommended foods.” It’s the way that we give meaning to age that’s worth considering.

Should we treat negative age beliefs with the same urgency as we would a virus?

Treating it as a public-health issue seems important, so yes. It would be great if there was a public-health campaign to let people know the harm that the negative messages of aging can have on our health. Healthcare providers could check our age beliefs when we come for appointments and give us advice on how to strengthen them.

The book includes the observation that the first very old person many medical students meet professionally is a cadaver in an autopsy.

Right now, pediatrics is required in most medical schools but geriatric rotations are often not. So I think increasing education around how best to treat older people and promote healthy aging could be an important step to reducing ageism in medical settings.

Has the pandemic set back the fight against ageism?

From the studies I’ve seen, there has been an increase in ageism, unfortunately, during the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic there was this popular meme calling Covid-19 the “Boomer Remover” that mocked the idea of older people dying of coronavirus.

How old can the human body get?

The longest living person on record is Jeanne Calment, who lived to 122.

There are controversies among demographers over whether that’s the age limit or how much further we could get. Today, the longest living person, Kane Tanaka, is 119. Everybody is counting the days. She’s a Japanese supercentenarian who embraces aging and benefits from a culture that often integrates and celebrates its elders.

In your book, you write that the elderly are more likely than young people to dream about their friends. Why is that?

Some studies have shown that emotional intelligence can improve in later life. There’s also research to suggest that people’s motivations change as they get older. They tend to think about contributing to society and contributing to others more as a motivation. Maybe these factors come together to influence our dreams.

Ellen Gamerman covers arts and entertainment for the Wall Street Journal

Speak Your Mind