Thirty years ago, gerontologist Robert Atchley, PhD, contacted every resident over the age of 50 in the town of Oxford, Ohio. About two-thirds of them--more than 1,100 people--agreed to participate in Atchley's Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement.
The participants answered multitudes of survey questions about their physical and mental health, socioeconomic status, work life, family and other topics. Included in the questions were a few that measured the people's attitudes toward their own aging--they were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as "I am as happy now as I was when I was younger," and "As you get older, you get less useful."
Over the years, the participants returned several times to answer more questions, giving the researchers a detailed snapshot of the course of aging in late 20th-century America.
In the late 1990s, Yale University psychologist Becca Levy, PhD, realized that the aging-attitudes questions from the Ohio study could help her answer a research question she'd begun to consider: Could people's attitudes toward aging influence how long they lived?
Levy collected death records to find out whether each participant was still alive or the age at which they had died. When she matched up the records with the people's survey answers, she found that people with more positive views of their own aging lived, on average, 7.6 years longer than people with more negative views. This significant survival advantage remained after controlling for other relevant factors.
Levy's study, published in 2002 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 83, No. 2, pages 261-270), is one of many over the past several years that have begun to suggest that your personality, attitude toward aging and other psychosocial variables might help either grant you extra years or shorten your life. Personality and attitude may also influence your physical and mental abilities as you age.
If that's true, Levy says, the negative stereotypes of aging and the elderly that permeate our culture could have serious consequences that go beyond just making people feel bad. "Negative images of aging could be a public health issue," she says.
The stereotype threat
Levy, a social psychologist, first became interested in aging because she studied stereotypes, and she was curious about how negative stereotypes of aging influenced the elderly's physical and mental health. She explains that members of racial or ethnic minorities encounter stereotypes while their identities are still forming, and they develop defenses early on. In contrast, people encounter aging stereotypes while they are still young, so because the stereotypes don't apply to them yet, they don't challenge them. As a result, once people are older, they may be more inclined to accept negative views of their age group unquestioningly.
"By the time they become old, they've already internalized [the stereotypes]," Levy says.
In her earliest study on the topic, published in 1994 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 66, No. 6, pages 989-997), Levy found that elderly Chinese performed better on memory tasks than did elderly Americans--possibly, she hypothesized, because the Chinese tend to have more positive views of aging than Americans. Supporting this, she also found that older Americans who were deaf--another group that, she says, tends to hold the elderly in higher esteem than mainstream American culture--also performed better than hearing Americans on memory tests.
The Ohio longevity study followed up on this earlier work, and suggested that attitudes toward aging could affect not just discrete abilities like memory, but overall physical health.
In her most recent study, published in March in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences (Vol. 61, No. 2, pages 82-87), Levy looked at another hallmark of old age--hearing loss. She found that seniors who held negative self-stereotypes about aging tended to lose more of their hearing over the course of three years than seniors with more positive views of aging.
Levy says that she and her colleagues still don't know the exact mechanism by which positive attitudes translate into better memory, sharper hearing and a longer life. But, she says, it may have something to do with the will to live--people's belief that the positive aspects of life outweigh the hardships. In the longevity study, for example, she found that the participants' will to live--as measured by descriptions of their lives as either hopeful or hopeless, worthless or worthy and empty or full--correlated with both their perceptions of aging and their lifespan.
Results like these show the power of negative aging stereotypes, according to University of Massachusetts Amherst psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, who also studies aging and ageism.
"There are a lot of variations in how people look at their own aging process," she says. And in her research, she says, she's found that people who don't dwell on the negative changes that come with age generally seem to do best.
But, she adds, it's hard to avoid dwelling on those changes in a culture as saturated with ageism as ours.
"I hate the term 'senior moment'--I just hate it," she says. "Because if you start to use terms like that about yourself, even if you're kidding, it's going to have a negative impact on your self-esteem."
A worrier's advantage?
Of course, taking a positive and optimistic attitude toward aging does not mean being unrealistic or ignoring serious age-related problems. Howard Friedman, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Riverside, studies personality characteristics asso-ciated with longevity and health. He's found that, contrary to popular belief, people who are extremely cheerful as children may actually die slightly younger than their less happy-go-lucky peers.
In a series of studies begun in 1993, he retrieved the mortality data for a group of children first studied by psychologist Lewis Terman in 1922. He found that on average the most cheerful children died earlier, and that their earlier deaths may have been at least partially caused by a more careless attitude toward their health--they were somewhat more likely to drink, smoke and take other risks.
What's more, particularly conscientious children lived longer, healthier lives on average. This makes sense, Friedman says: A conscientious person will probably head to the doctor at the first sign of trouble, avoiding later, more serious problems.
Still, he adds, the associations between personality and longevity are complicated--even all of the mediating variables such as drinking, smoking and obesity didn't entirely explain the cheerfulness/early mortality link. And animal research has shown that individuals who are easily stressed may die earlier, due to the wear of frequently going through the startle response.
"People try to generalize and say a trait like cheerfulness or neuroticism is good or bad," he says. "But sometimes it's good to worry, and sometimes it's not--it depends on the situation."
Whitbourne agrees that when a positive attitude toward aging shades into a laissez-faire attitude toward health, it can go too far. "You don't want to overdo it; if you go into denial that's bad," she says. "It's good to have some anxiety about aging if it gets you moving and taking care of yourself, but it's bad if you become incapacitated by it."
Plan ahead for retirement
APA's Committee on Aging has developed a pamphlet to help young, middle-aged and older psychologists plan for the challenges that can arise as they age. "Life Plan for the Life Span" offers guidance, advice and links to resources on financial, health, psychological, social and work/life issues. View the brochure and other aging resources at www.apa.org/pi/aging.
Qualls, S., & Abeles, N. (Eds.). (2003). Psychology and the aging revolution: How we adapt to longer life. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Levy, B.R. (2003). Mind matters: Cognitive and physical effects of aging self-stereotypes. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. 58, pages 203-211.
Friedman, H.S. (2007). Personality, disease, and self-healing. In H.S. Friedman & R.C. Silver (Eds.), Foundations of Health Psychology (pp. 172-199). NY: Oxford University Press.
Schlossberg, N.K. (Ed.). (2003). Retire smart, retire happy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Whitbourne, S.K. & Sneed, J.R. (2002). The paradox of well-being: Identity processes, and stereotype threat: Ageism and its potential relationships to the self in later life. In T. Nelson (Ed.), Ageism: Stereotyping and prejudice against older persons, (pp. 246-273). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.