The Perils of Ageism

Thursday, February 19, 2009

By Wray Herbert

When the AARP put Caroline Kennedy on its magazine’s cover last year, the retirees’ group was sending a message about aging in America: Growing old is not about decline and neediness and decrepitude. It’s about vibrancy and independence and creativity. The darling of Camelot joined the likes of Jamie Lee Curtis, Richard Gere and Katie Couric in combating the stigma of age.

Not everyone buys into this sanguine view of aging, however. Indeed, ageism is still rampant in America, and many old people themselves trade in unflattering stereotypes of the elderly, including helplessness and incompetence. Such caricatures are not only false and cruel, they are also unhealthy. Research has shown time and again that old people who believe in negative age stereotypes tend to fulfill them.

And it may not just be the elderly who are harmed by ageism. New evidence suggests that young, healthy people who stereotype old people may themselves be at risk of heart disease many years down the road. Becca Levy of the Yale School of Public Health examined data on hundreds of men and women who have been studied for almost four decades as part of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. Back in 1968, when scientists first began studying these volunteers, they ranged in age from 18 to 49 and were all in very good health. At that time, scientists gathered all sorts of information about the volunteers, including their attitudes toward the elderly. Their images of being old covered the gamut from very positive to very negative.

Levy and her colleagues examined the health histories of all the volunteers, focusing on cardiovascular disease: heart attacks, congestive heart failure, stroke, and so forth. There was a striking link between ageism early in life and poor heart health later on. That is, those who viewed old age as a time of helplessness were much more likely to experience some kind of cardiovascular disorder over the next four decades. The scientists also looked at a subset of volunteers who didn’t have any heart problems until after they were 60—at least 21 years later—and found that these people had been very negative about aging from early on. The episodes of heart disease could not be explained by smoking, depression, cholesterol, family history, or any of a myriad other possible risk factors.

What this suggests, Levy writes in the March issue of the journal Psychological Science, is that people are internalizing stereotypes of old age when they are still quite young—with far reaching consequences. This is the first scientific look at people maturing into the very people they have been unkindly caricaturing. It could be taken as a cautionary tale for those who think they’ll never grow old.

For more insights into human nature, visit “We’re Only Human” at Selections from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 2:53 PM


At 6:03 AM , Blogger Lirone said...

Isn't it a more likely explanation that people's attitude to older people is shaped by their parents/grandparents, with whom they're likely to share many aspects of both genes and lifestyle.

I'm sure my own attitudes to older people are shaped by my active and independent parents and grandparents (my dad still goes mountaineering at 72) - and I hope that, having both their genes and a similar lifestyle, I'm on course for a similarly active old age myself. It's easy to imagine the reverse applying.

At 7:58 PM , Blogger scressley said...

I agree that someones ideas about something can affect their behavior. Everyone does it, you act the way you are expected to act. And when people get old they tend to act helpless and forgetful. So if your brain thinks these things, your body will slowly adapt to what you think. (If that makes sense.)
It's like the experiment my psychology professor mentioned one day in class: this scientist had people read several lists of words. In each list three of the words were similar, while the fourth one (the one that stuck out like a sore thumb) was related to a word that is usually associated with old. Like Florida, wrinkly, slow, unhealthy and what not. Anyways, after they read this list, the people's actions slowed down and they walked slower down the hallway. This, in a way, shows that the mind, even unconsciously, has extreme power over your behaviors.


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