A recent Yale study has found that changing the way older individuals view themselves can improve their health.
Researchers showed elderly participants words that invoked a positive view of aging, and then administered tests to measure their physical function. Compared to those in the control group, those who were exposed to positive stereotypes of aging saw their physical function and self-perceptions improve. The study, led by researchers from the School of Public Health, the School of Medicine and the University of Berkeley’s Department of Demography was published in the journal Psychological Science on Oct. 17, and was composed of 100 individuals with an average age of 81.
“We were able to strengthen positive age stereotypes, and we were able to reduce negative age stereotypes of our older participants,” said lead author and Yale public health professor Becca Levy. “We also found that the physical function effect remained for three weeks after the intervention ended.”
According to Jeff Hausdorff, a professor at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, previous research in this area has shown that negative stereotypes of aging are associated with a decline in physical function. But this study is the first to show that intervening against these negative stereotypes by exposing elderly people to positive stereotypes actually improves physical function, he said.
Levy and her team created two experimental groups, one in which study participants were implicitly exposed to positive age stereotypes and another in which they were asked to write about positive aspects of aging — an explicit exposure. Implicit exposure means that people are unaware of the information being conveyed to them, while explicit exposure means people are aware.
Members of the implicit exposure group were asked to watch a computer screen until they saw a flash and then report to researchers where it appeared. Unbeknownst to them, the flashes displayed words like “wise” and “creative,” but appeared so fleetingly that they were unable to process the words.
In accordance with the study’s hypothesis, the implicit exposure group showed strong improvement in positive age stereotype, perceptions of aging and physical function while the explicit exposure group showed no significant improvement in any of these areas.
“If you believe negative things about yourself, such as about yourself as an aging person, you’re going to bear the emotional weight of believing yourself to be inferior,” School of Public Health professor John Pachankis said in an email. “This type of chronic stress can impair immunity, lead to unhealthy cardiovascular responses and ultimately disrupt health even at a cellular level.”
The study hypothesized that explicit exposure, on the other hand, “may be thwarted by cognitive strategies that preserve existing beliefs.”
School of Medicine professor Martin Slade, who co-authored the study, explained that specially designed interventions could increase positive-age stereotypes across the population. If doing so improved physical function among older individuals, health care costs could go down, he said in an email.
To build on this study, which looked into whether self-perception is part of the mechanism by which physical function improves, Levy said she would like to look into the different levels on which these age stereotypes operate.
“Age stereotypes probably operate on a behavioral level, on a physiological level and [on] a psychological level,” she said. “Trying to better understand the different levels that operate and how those mechanisms interact with each other is something we’re really interested in.”
According to the World Health Organization, the average life span in the United States is 82 for females and 77 for males.