When Yale professor Becca Levy began conducting her decades-long research on the psychology of aging, she would routinely ask people to think of five words to describe an older person. In the US, the most common answer was “memory loss.” In China, it was “wisdom.”
As her research would find, the answer to this question had major impact. Your answer could fundamentally change how you age — even adding 7.5 years to your life.
In the new book “Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live,” Levy draws on decades of research and interviews to show how positive age beliefs are key to enjoying our golden years — and maintaining our health.
“In study after study I conducted, I found that older people with more-positive perceptions of aging performed better physically and cognitively than those with more-negative perceptions,” Levy writes. “They were more likely to recover from severe disability, they remembered better, they walked faster, and they even lived longer.”
Levy’s findings are timelier than ever. For the first time in history, there are now more people worldwide over the age of 64 than under the age of 5. Some have even referred to it as a “silver tsunami” or “gray wave.”
But as we live longer than ever, age beliefs in the US are only becoming more negative. From TV shows to advertisements to who gets access to quality medical treatment and employment opportunities — ageism abounds and American culture treats old age as if it inevitably means “forgetfulness, weakness, and decline.”
As one older Englishwoman wrote to Levy: “Frankly I feel ashamed to be old. Why? Because society tells me it is shameful.”
When we reach old age ourselves, Levy says the age stereotypes we’ve absorbed in our youth become a self-fulfilling prophecy: We’ve primed ourselves to expect our minds and bodies to decline in old age — so we’re less likely to engage in behaviors that keep us healthy, seeing it as futile.
The good news: No matter your age, Levy’s research shows your age beliefs aren’t fixed. Levy found we all hold positive beliefs about aging — they just need activation.
And one key way to develop more positive beliefs is to celebrate older people who are bucking negative age stereotypes and proving that getting older can be great.
Here, a few lessons we can all learn from our elders and Levy’s research to help us care for our longevity, memory, and physical health.
On Jan. 2, Kane Tanaka crossed a historic milestone that she shared with the Twitterverse (with some help from her great-granddaughter): The supercentenarian turned 119.
Tanaka lives in a nursing home on an island in the Okinawa region of Japan, and she’s the world’s oldest living person. Born in 1903, Tanaka worked in her husband’s rice shop from the age of 19 until the age of 103, according to CNN.
Today, she’s treated as a celebrity in Japan, even starring on Japanese reality TV. And on Keiro No Hi, a national holiday in Japan which translates to “Respect for the Aged Day,” her entire town throws her a party as elders nationwide are celebrated.
“The Japanese [treat] old age as something to enjoy, a fact of being alive, rather than something to fear or resent,” Levy writes.
If our society were to shift to an “age-thriving” mindset in a similar way to Japanese culture: Levy’s research shows the impact could forever change longevity.
Much of Levy’s findings come from analyzing longitudinal studies—a gold mine for any researcher studying aging. In one study out of Oxford, Ohio, Levy discovered that the initial survey asked participants about their age beliefs, including questions like “Do you agree or disagree that as you get older you are less useful?”
The study spanned over 20 years, and Levy found that participants with the most positive age beliefs were living on average 7.5 years longer than participants with the most negative age beliefs.
Age beliefs determined the participant’s life spans even more than gender, race, socioeconomic status, age, and health — and they added an even greater survival advantage than some of our most-touted longevity hacks, like lowering cholesterol (which adds an extra four years of life) or avoiding smoking (an extra three years of life).
In her findings, published in 2002, Levy penned a call to action, writing that ageism deserved to be treated as if it were an “unidentified virus” that was found to shorten our lives by seven years.
She even testified at a hearing on ageism on Capitol Hill after the study was published, alongside the late actress Doris Roberts, who played Raymond’s mom on “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
“When my grandchildren say that I rock, they are not talking about a chair,” Roberts, then 76, told the senators. “My peers and I are portrayed as dependent, helpless, unproductive, and demanding rather than deserving…The later years can be some of life’s most productive and creative.”
Flex Your Memory
When John Basinger was on the verge of turning 60, he set a goal to put any “Senior Moment” birthday card to shame: He planned to memorize and perform all of John Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost,” totaling more than 60,000 words.
The retired actor from Middletown, Conn., started the challenge in 1992, learning seven lines at a time while walking on the treadmill at the gym. Eight years later, he had all 12 books committed to memory and performed it for the public over a three-day marathon recital.
Today, at the age of 84, Basinger told Levy he still remembers all of “Paradise Lost” — and he’s memorized other pieces, too, including portions of “King Lear” for his performance as the titular character in a 2014 production in Middletown.
Basinger told Levy he draws inspiration from the late Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, who practiced and performed into his 90s.
“John is living proof that a completely average memory is a remarkable thing when joined with the willingness to work it like a muscle and the right set of age beliefs,” Levy writes.
In her lab, Levy found that older participants who were primed with positive stereotypes of old age — including words like “wise” and “alert” — for ten minutes improved their performance on a subsequent memory task. Meanwhile: Participants primed with negative stereotypes, like “senile” and “confused,” saw a decline in memory performance.
The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA) also showed that over a period of 38 years, people with positive age beliefs at the start of the study experienced 30% better memory scores in old age than people with negative age beliefs.
The BLSA also helped Levy uncover that participants with negative age beliefs were more likely to develop biomarkers of Alzheimer’s — and brain dissections showed that “their hippocampi, the part of the brain responsible for memory, shrank three times as fast.”
It’s something Basinger might have been on to — he joked with the Hartford Courant before his Milton marathon performance that the memorization process was his “12-step program against Alzheimer’s.”
Keep Sweating—and Swimming
At age 48, Sister Madonna Buder laced up a pair of borrowed running shoes and set out on her first run. She told Triathlete a priest encouraged her to give it a try. “He mentioned that running had many benefits, including a way to ‘harmonize mind, body and soul,’” she said.
That first half-a-mile run turned into a short race, then competing in a marathon, and then, four years later, competing in her first triathlon.
She’s now known as the “Iron Nun,” and has completed more than 350 triathlons since, including one recently at the age of 91. She’s the current world record holder for oldest woman to ever finish an Ironman Triathlon, which she earned at the age of 82.
When Levy interviewed Sister Madonna, the nun shared that her father inspired her to stay active into older age — he rowed and played handball into his 70s. “It doesn’t make sense to fear aging, since you never know what lies ahead of you,” Sister Madonna told Levy.
It’s a similar perspective shared by Wilhelmina Delco. The now-90-year-old former Texas politician took up swimming for the first time at the age of 80, earning her the title of “the old lady who swims at the Y.”
What began as a practice to help soothe her arthritis quickly became a passion, and it’s a new chapter for her after a legacy of civic service. “I am proud of being my age, not some strange exception,” she told Levy.
Levy found that people with negative age beliefs exercise less, and a longitudinal study showed that people over the age of 50 with positive age beliefs had better body movement over a period of 18 years than people of the same age with negative age beliefs.
One of her lab experiments even showed that participants primed with positive age beliefs for 10 minutes “immediately showed faster walking speeds and better balance.”
Levy’s conclusion: The belief that we can’t be active in old age is a myth. “Whether you decide to start going for runs at sixty, hop in the pool for the first time at seventy, or go on walks at any age, it matters less when and what you do than that you build up positive age beliefs and trust that your body will respond in kind,” she writes.
Just take a cue from Sister Madonna and the first words that come to mind when she thinks of aging: “Wisdom and grace. There’s running and opportunity. And fine wine.”
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