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How combatting internal ageism can add years to our lives




Q. I recently was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and lived with that diagnosis for 18 months. I stopped doing my normal activities, believing I couldn’t drive, shop, go out alone and more. Recently, I learned it was a wrong diagnosis. I do not have the disease and have resumed most of my activities. I now realize how much my attitude and fear about aging and the disease affected on what I was doing. Can you write about this? C.S.


Thank you, C.S., for your very important question. What an enormous relief you must be feeling. 


You’ve touched on a subject that is receiving increased attention: How negative beliefs about aging can determine not only our well-being but the number of years we will live. This is about internal ageism and the negative voices in our heads. It’s ageism that is self-directed where one easily internalizes ageist messages we receive from the media, entertainment industry, advertising, the workplace and even the medical community. Such messages can easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy creating self-doubt. 


Becca Levy, professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health, has done seminal work on this subject. In her recent book, she tells a story that demonstrates the impact of negative beliefs about aging based on her personal experience. (See “How Your Beliefs about Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live: Breaking the Age Code,” HarperCollins, 2022)


Levy went to the market with her grandmother, a competitive golfer and avid walker. Unfortunately, her grandmother tripped in the store and had a bloody gash on her leg. On the way out she confronted the owner and told him, “You shouldn’t leave crates in the middle of the store.” The owner replied, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t be walking around. It’s not my fault old people fall down all the time. So don’t go blaming me.” Subsequently, her grandmother’s behavior changed. She asked Levy to water her avocado tree which she always did herself; she no longer trusted herself to drive. Reliving the comments of the grocery owner, her grandmother questioned her own competency as an old person in a way she never did before.


We know negative stereotypes about aging impact one’s physical and mental health. Those with negative perceptions were found to have the following conditions


  • Higher rates of cardiac disease.

  • Less chance of recovering from severe disability.

  • Poorer memory and cognition.

  • Lower quality diet and exercise regimes.

  • Less inclination to take medication as instructed.


Internalized ageism worsens health for several reasons. If you believe decline is inevitable, it’s easy to think, “What’s the use? I’m going downhill anyway.” As a result, individuals may be less motivated to take medicines, eat well and exercise. Ironically, these behaviors are likely to accelerate aging. Feeling badly about getting older also lowers self-confidence. One study found that internalized ageism made people want to retire early. And negative emotions in general raise biological stress, a risk for heart disease and stroke. 

Now to some research results that might seem surprising. 


One of the most astounding findings in a study that spanned 20 years, Levy found those with the most positive beliefs about aging were living on average 7.5 years longer than those with the most negative age beliefs. (New York Times, April 11, 2022)


Having the APOE ε4 gene is one of the strongest risk factors for dementia. Yet some who carry the gene never develop dementia. Levy and colleagues found those with the gene who had positive beliefs about aging were nearly 50 percent less likely to develop dementia than those with negative age beliefs. In a 2012 study, memory tests showed that those with positive age beliefs outperformed their peers who had negative beliefs by 30 percent. And those with a positive attitude about aging have better survival rates compared to those with low cholesterol or blood pressure, low body mass and who avoid smoking, according to a Yale study.


When we look for reasons, culture can play a role, too. Levy asked two individuals each from a different culture to think of the first five words or phrases that come to mind when thinking of aging. A 79-year-old violin maker outside Boston replied, “Senile, slow sick, grumpy and stubborn.” An 82-year-old woman from China replied to the same question, “Wise, loves Peking Opera, reads to grandchildren, walks a lot and kind.” These may be individual responses, but they may also point to a cultural difference in how aging is viewed.


There are ways to get over internalized aging. Levy calls it the “ABCs of liberation” or an “age-liberation movement.” It consists of increasing awareness, placing blame where it belongs and challenging negative age beliefs. It’s about changing habits. 


Next week, we’ll learn more about Levy and other’s approaches about just how to do this.


Stay well, everyone; enjoy this holiday season and radiate kindness near and far. 


Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Helendenn@gmail.com. Visit Helen at HelenMdennis.com and follow her on facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity


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