Dr. Caroline Leaf – In this podcast (episode #373) and blog, I talk to Dr. Becca Levy, an award-winning Yale professor of psychology and global health. We discuss the dangers of ageism, how positive and negative age stereotypes affect the health of older individuals, how to use the mind and brain more effectively as we age, age as a socially fluid construct, what happens to memory and the mind when we get older, and so much more!
In her amazing new book Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live, Dr. Becca examines the question: do beliefs about aging impact our health and longevity? Her research is centered around her time in Japan studying how differently older people are treated in the country, and how it may be connected to their high life expectancy. In Japan, older people are celebrated, while really old people are treated like rock stars—they embrace the aging process.
This led to the question, how do our beliefs about aging shape our health and our lives? In her book, Dr. Becca “demonstrates that many health problems formerly considered to be entirely due to the aging process, such as memory loss, hearing decline, and cardiovascular events, are instead influenced by the negative age beliefs that dominate in the US and other ageist countries.”
As Dr. Becca notes, ageism is like an evil octopus. It is omnipresent and goes in so many different directions, wrapping its tentacles over so many parts of our lives. In fact, the World Health Organization recently declared that ageism is one of the most widespread forms and socially sanctioned forms of prejudice in our world today, and something we often overlook or do not see. Negative messages and beliefs about aging limit opportunities, affect health, and compound existing prejudices like sexism and racism.
In her research, Dr. Becca observed how beliefs about aging expressed at a younger age can impact a person’s survival. People who have more positive beliefs about getting older on average lived 7 1/2 years longer than those with a more negative perception of aging. Since we start developing perceptions about getting older from as young as 3, it is so important to examine how and why these beliefs can impact not only how we treat older people, but also how we age.
Because of the mind-brain-body connection, many health outcomes are connected to our beliefs about aging, including our cardiovascular and cognitive wellbeing. One study noted how younger adults who had more negative beliefs about aging increased their risk of a cardiovascular event when they turned 60, while subjects with a more optimistic outlook on aging reduced their risk for cardiovascular issues when they reached the age of 60. Similarly, research has shown how people with more positive beliefs about aging reduce their risk for developing dementias like Alzheimer’s, even if they were born with risky genes.
Our memory and brain health can actually get better as we age. The common stereotype that our mind declines as we age doesn’t match the science. There are many different types of memory that are stable and can improve as we age, including our ability to communicate and solve conflicts. Indeed, as we age, our brain connectivity and neurons keeps developing, which adds to our intelligence. A forgetful moment is not just a “senior moment” or something bad; it is a sign that our memory changes over time, which is not in and of itself a bad thing.
We need to remember that age can be a socially fluid construct. There is no set way of aging, and the aging process is not just determined by our biology. As Dr. Becca notes, aging is determined by many factors; our genes only contribute around 25% to how we age. The other 75% includes environmental factors and things we can control, including our cultural and individual beliefs about aging that can impact our health and longevity.
The great news is that our attitudes towards aging can be changed or improved at any time during our lifespan, which can have a positive effect on our health and lifespan. This is preventative health at its best. As we learn to shift our age beliefs to be more positive and reduce negative culture messages about aging, we can impact the course of our lives. We can become aware of and change the messages we receive and develop concerning aging on both an individual and societal level.
In her book, Dr. Becca has some great tools that help us improve our perception of aging, and subsequently, our health. One of most powerful things we all can do is increase our awareness. What are our age beliefs? How do we see aging? What kind of age-related messages are we exposed to? A great way to do this what Dr. Becca calls “age-belief journaling”. For one week, write down every belief that you see or hear about aging (on social media, in conversations, on TV, at work, at school and so on) and write down if you think it is positive or negative. At the end of the week, add up the negatives and positives. What is the ratio? And with the negative portrayals, do you think they had to be so negative? Is there another way aging could have been portrayed? Actively noticing the beliefs about aging we have and are exposed to is the first step to actively changing them in ways that positively impact our health and lifespan.
It is also helpful to become knowledgeable about the actual science behind aging. This gives us an arsenal to draw on to discount the negative age beliefs and stereotypes, such as “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. The reality is that we actually can—we can improve our cognition and learn new things at ANY age.
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