A recent study by the Yale School of Public Health has found that elderly patients who embrace positive stereotypes about aging are 44 percent more likely to recover from physical disabilities than those who hold negative beliefs about old people.

Yale epidemiology and psychology professor Becca Levy, the study’s lead researcher, said the findings suggest it may be helpful to give elderly patients recovering from a disability the resources to bolster positive stereotypes about aging. Levy, along with medicine professor and geriatrician Thomas Gill and statisticians Martin Slade SPH ’01 and Terrence Murphy, followed 754 independently living participants at least 70 years of age over the course of 129 months. All participants were free of disability at the beginning of the study, and the researchers collected data from participants every month from 1998 to 2010. This study appeared online in The Journal of the American Medical Association on Nov. 21.

“I’m interested in how we can overcome ageism in medicine, and I wanted to see whether these stereotypes have an impact on patients,” Levy said.

During the course of the 12-year study, 598 participants reported experiencing a disability. The researchers considered four different activity indicators of disability: the abilities to walk, to bathe, to dress and to transfer or to move from a chair. Levy said disruption of these basic daily activities is a good predictor of survival rates and of health care utilization. She added that there is a wide range of causes of these disabilities, including falls and illnesses.

Of the participants who experienced a disability, those who held positive beliefs about old people were 44 percent more likely to make a recovery transition from severe to mild disability, severe disability to complete recovery or from mild disability to complete recovery. Levy said she determined whether patients held a negative or positive stereotype of aging by asking them the first five words or phrases that came to mind when thinking about old people. A separate group of researchers then rated each response on a scale of one to five as either positive or negative.

While this was her first longitudinal study of age stereotypes in medicine, Levy has previously conducted experimental and cross-cultural research on the topic. Her experimental research found that elderly patients exposed to a positive aging stereotype tend to have a temporary increase in memory function and a lower cardiovascular response to stress. She has also found that elderly patients in mainland China, where aging is generally perceived as more positive than in the United States, have better memory function.

“This is an impressive study in that it has a truly rich, longitudinal data set with very few gaps,” Murphy said. “We think the results are very promising and encouraging and show that mindset may be associated with recovery in elderly patients.”

Murphy said the study was not a randomized trial and that the results cannot be determined as causal. But he added that because of the size of the data set and the rigorous statistical modeling, the results could not be accounted for by random events.

The Yale School of Public Health was founded in 1915.