Why you should care
Because living to 100 isn’t for weaklings.
“Optimism is one of the keys” to reaching old age, says Jacquelyn Rogers. “Those who fear aging are probably pessimists. I’m not,” says the 93-year-old New York-based author.
Rogers doesn’t hold negative attitudes or assumptions about older generations, nor is she afraid of aging. In fact, having written about quitting smoking years ago, she’s turning her efforts to Being Old Is Interesting, a book she’s writing about octogenarian and nonagenarians’ views on aging. For her, feeling good at any age is about being optimistic, maintaining a healthy lifestyle — with plenty of physical activity and vitamins — and finding purpose.
But her positivity toward “great oldies” — as she calls her peers — is the exception to a less pleasant rule. In fact, the World Health Organization’s recent world values survey shows that ageism is “socially acceptable, strongly institutionalized” and “largely undetected and unchallenged.”
Interviews with 83,034 adults from 57 countries found that 60 percent of people surveyed reported that older adults are not well respected. If you think living in a highly advanced, first-world economy helps, think again: The lowest levels of elder respect were in high-income nations. But there’s very good reason to start looking favorably upon our aging neighbors: It could help you live longer. Yale researchers have found that:
People with positive ideas about aging had a lower level of a key stress biomarker.
Back in 2002, the same researchers published findings of a decades-long longevity study with 660 respondents showing that those with more positive self-perceptions about aging — those who think “wisdom,” not “frail,” for example — lived 7.5 years longer than those with more negative views. “We believe older individuals’ internalized age stereotypes contribute to the formation of their self-perceptions of aging, which, in turn, can have a physiological outcome,” the authors of the study wrote.
Yale’s Becca Levy, one of the authors, explains that this study and her subsequent work have employed various methodologies — longitudinal and cross-cultural studies — to investigate how societal age stereotypes can affect older individuals’ life and functioning. In their latest study, published earlier this year, Levy and her colleagues replicated their earlier findings, this time looking at biological mechanisms to see whether they could explain the results. Investigating C-reactive protein, an inflammation marker, they found, in a study of 6,715 participants, that “those with more positive age stereotypes had a lower level of this stress biomarker, and those who had the more negative views of aging had an elevated amount,” Levy says, which supports the hypothesis.
Such views of aging, she explains, come from what people have absorbed from cultural sources. These can include social media — which notably tends to spread more negative views of aging — literature and television, in addition to actual interaction. The key, Levy says, is living in a supportive culture that thinks well of its older members of society. China ranks highly, she says, while the U.S. tends to harbor more negative views as a whole.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t turn things around. “Individuals can expose themselves in an active way to more positive views of aging,” Levy says, pointing to literature and older role models. We “can seek out older positive images.” So instead of dwelling on frail, incapacitated imagery of older folks, focus on the Jacquelyns of the world — and stay happy, fit and healthy to a ripe old age.