In the first study of its kind, a Yale-led research team has shown that older individuals’ beliefs about aging can have a direct impact on their health. The study suggests that negative beliefs or stereotypes about aging that many elderly Americans encounter in their daily lives can increase their cardiovascular stress.
“We were able to reduce this cardiovascular stress by introducing positive stereotypes of aging,” said Becca Levy, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at Yale School of Medicine and lead author of the study. “Previous studies have found that a heightened cardiovascular response to stress contributes to the development of heart disease.”
Published in the July 2000 issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, the study included 54 participants between the ages of 62 and 82, who performed tasks such as recalling the most stressful event in the last five years. After being exposed to positive stereotypes of aging, the group showed a significant decrease in two cardiovascular measures: systolic and diastolic blood pressure. In contrast, participants who were exposed to negative stereotypes of aging showed a significant increase in these measures, even before they performed the stressful tasks.
“Negative stereotypes of aging are found in many aspects of our culture,” Levy said. “From casual conversations to television advertisements that often present the elderly either as close to childhood or close to death.”
In China, a country with more positive aging stereotypes than the United States, Levy found in a past study that older persons performed better on certain memory tasks than their American peers.
Using a method she created for her previous studies of the elderly, Levy exposed study participants in the current study to stereotypes subliminally with words flashing on a computer screen for fractions of a second. Participants were assigned to either a positive or negative aging stereotype group. Those in the positive stereotype group were exposed to words such as “wisdom, creative, accomplished, alert, wise” and those exposed to the negative stereotype group saw words like “Alzheimer’s, confused, dementia, senile and “dying.”
“The study suggests that negative stereotypes of aging may contribute to health problems in the elderly without their awareness,” Levy said. “This, in turn, could lead to older individuals mistakenly attributing decline in their health to the inevitability of aging, which might then reinforce the negative stereotypes and prevent successful aging.”
The study also found that the elderly participants who were exposed to positive aging self-stereotypes demonstrated significantly higher self-confidence and higher mathematical performance than those exposed to the negative aging self-stereotypes.
Based on the findings, Levy said, future treatments aimed at reducing stress in the elderly should consider including the reduction of negative aging self-stereotypes and the promotion of positive ones.
Levy¹s team included Jeanne Y. Wei, M.D., and Jeffrey M. Hausdorff of Harvard Medical School and Rebecca Hencke of Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Source: Gerontological Society of America