Dr. Becca Levy’s groundbreaking research into ageing, as detailed in Breaking The Age Code, sheds light on a remarkable discovery – the key to improved physical and cognitive performance, as well as longer life spans, lies not in medical interventions but in our thoughts and beliefs, particularly regarding ageism. This aligns with the findings of my own doctoral research.

Our perceptions of ageing greatly influence our abilities and longevity. Individuals who possess positive attitudes towards ageing tend to excel in physical and cognitive tests, while those harbouring negative views struggle. Moreover, positive age perceptions are associated with extended lifespans. Therefore, it becomes imperative for us to change our mindset.

Ageist messages begin to shape our perception as early as the age of three, and unfortunately, these messages often persist throughout our lives. They not only impact our self-esteem and psychological well-being but also have a biological effect, leading to increased stress levels that can ultimately hasten our demise.

The role of the media in our views on ageing

The media plays a significant role in perpetuating ageist stereotypes. Films, TV shows, advertisements, and articles frequently depict older individuals in a negative light, portraying them as slow, incapable of learning, and resistant to new experiences. These subtle messages seep into our minds, compelling us to conform by dyeing our hair and perpetuating the notion that older people are dependent, helpless, unproductive, and demanding.

Media representations often emphasize wrinkled hands and an overall appearance of sadness and ill health, except for the unrealistic images of overly jubilant couples. Recognizing the impact of these negative portrayals, the Centre for Ageing Better has taken steps to create a media library showcasing positive depictions of older individuals.

Promoting negative age beliefs serves as a means to sell products, such as creams, pills, potions, and hormonal supplements, which exploit the fear of ageing that the media has helped cultivate. These products falsely claim to halt or reverse the ageing process, and their pervasive influence has led even individuals in their twenties to seek treatments like Botox.

The feared future self

Ageism fosters stereotypes that cause younger people to view older individuals as fundamentally different from themselves, robbing them of their humanity. The fear of ageing takes root early on, leading younger individuals to develop negative perceptions of older people. Consequently, when they themselves reach an older age, they have already internalized these negative stereotypes. For example, if they believe that individuals over 40 cannot lift weights at the gym, they will likely struggle to do so as they age.

We may also experience a sense of dread when we reach our forties or fifties. Around this time, we may start feeling old and receiving less attention than in our younger years. In these moments, we may encounter an older person and project our negative thoughts about ageing onto them. We perceive them as unattractive, frail, and someone we do not wish to become.

However, we are so much more than our external appearance. Judging a person solely based on their outward appearance prevents personal growth and development. It is within our control to challenge these negative beliefs and embrace the benefits of positive age perceptions.

It’s in our control – the benefits of positive age beliefs

Contrary to popular belief, most of the negative beliefs surrounding ageing stem from societal messages rather than scientific evidence. Only a quarter of our health is predetermined by our genes, leaving ample room for us to influence the remaining factors.

Fascinating longitudinal studies have revealed the incredible impact of positive age beliefs on memory. Individuals who held positive perceptions of ageing from the beginning of the study exhibited memory scores that were 30 percent higher than those with negative age beliefs. Furthermore, research has shown that age beliefs influence functional health, rather than the other way around. By cultivating positive age perceptions, as demonstrated in Becca Levy’s study, individuals can improve their overall health.

Positive age beliefs also play a significant role in injury recovery. Holding optimistic views about ageing can aid in the healing process following illness or injury. In fact, those with positive age perceptions have a 44 percent higher likelihood of fully recovering from severe disability compared to individuals who hold negative stereotypes.

Having something to look forward to can also extend our lives. We often encounter stories of individuals who persist until after a significant event, such as the birth of a grandchild. When my mother approached her 90th birthday, I encouraged her to think about what she would love to do throughout her birthday year. By expanding her horizons and considering various possibilities, we witnessed the transformative power of these conversations.

When faced with an injury, it is important not to attribute it solely to old age. We must recognize that factors such as inadequate warm-up routines can contribute to muscle tears, rather than simply blaming age.

It’s never too late

It is never too late to embark on new endeavours. Numerous examples exist of individuals taking up sports later in life and excelling, whether it be swimming or bodybuilding. Research substantiates these anecdotes, revealing that individuals who begin running in their fifties can achieve comparable levels of muscle mass and finishing times to those who have been running for decades.

Crystallized Intelligence

Furthermore, our brain continues to forge new connections as we age, leading to enhanced pattern recognition and crystallized intelligence. This shift allows us to tap into our accumulated knowledge and wisdom, making us more proficient in many careers.

Stress and ageing

Negative age stereotypes create significant levels of stress, while positive beliefs about ageing serve as a protective shield against stress. It is highly advantageous to work on fostering positive belief systems. Stress has been identified as one of the causes of Alzheimer’s disease, and negative age beliefs can contribute to this stress. Research reveals that individuals with negative age beliefs experience three times faster shrinkage of the hippocampus compared to those with positive beliefs.

Engageing in a longitudinal study allows for the observation of people over a period of time. In a study conducted in Ohio, participants were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “As you get older, you become less useful.” When comparing this data with mortality rates, it was discovered that individuals with the most positive views on ageing lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those with the most negative views. This longevity surpasses the impact of gender, race, socioeconomic status, age, loneliness, and health. In fact, it exceeds the benefits of having low cholesterol or blood pressure (adding 4 years), avoiding smoking (adding 3 years), and maintaining a low body mass (adding just one year).

Role Models

We have numerous notable role models who have achieved their greatest accomplishments in later life, including Hitchcock, Dickens, Bernstein, Matisse, Picasso, Einstein, and Mother Teresa. Additionally, the average age of Nobel Prize winners is 65. However, ordinary individuals also demonstrate remarkable achievements in their later years. For instance, there is a man who successfully memorized and performed Paradise Lost at the age of 60, a nun who completed 350 triathlons starting in her early fifties, and a retired pediatrician of 75 who engages in teaching, grows rare orchids, cooks French cuisine, and even flies his own plane. These examples showcase the immense potential and capabilities that older individuals possess.

We are not a burden

Contrary to common belief, as the population ages, less money is spent on healthcare rather than more. Older people today are generally healthier than previous generations, having evaded many age-related diseases. In fact, 90 percent of centenarians live independently throughout their 90s, remaining active and engaged in various activities such as work, the arts, outdoor pursuits, and even maintaining an active sexual life. These centenarians serve as exceptional role models for positive ageing.

A rewarding and creative future

Positive beliefs about ageing not only contribute to a longer lifespan but also lead to a more fulfilling and creative life. Joan Erikson, wife of Erik Erikson, emphasizes that engageing in creative activities keeps our senses sharp and perceptive. Research conducted by Dean Simonton supports this notion, revealing that the quality of creative work remains consistent throughout our lifespan. Many musicians continue to pursue their passion and expect to play or sing even in their later years. Violinist Arnold Steinhardt suggests that older musicians become more attuned to the emotional nuances of composers. This aligns with other studies indicating that our ability to interpret feelings improves with age.

Furthermore, research indicates that the hearing of an average 70-year-old musician is comparable to that of a non-musician in their 50s. Learning to play a musical instrument later in life can benefit our cognitive abilities, attention, memory, and even enhance our auditory perception.

Renowned author Peter Drucker wrote over half of his 39 books after the age of 70, while Penelope Lively, now 88, has authored 40 books, four of which were written in the past decade. These individuals exemplify the potential for continued productivity and creativity in later life.

We can change our mindset around ageing 

It is essential to recognize that we have the power to change our mindset regarding ageing. We can actively seek out positive role models and engage in conversations about ageism, as many older individuals may not be aware of its existence. Challenging negative age beliefs can reduce the likelihood of developing depression and anxiety.

Additionally, we can model positive ageing by treating older people with respect and avoiding condescending behavior or derogatory terms, such as those often found on birthday cards.

It is crucial to encourage the medical profession to conduct thorough investigations rather than attributing symptoms solely to old age.

Lastly, it is important to discuss ageism with younger generations, as they too will face its impact in the future, affecting their own selves and their loved ones.

Published On: December 21st, 2023 / Categories: Ageing /