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Old-Age Stereotypes Bad For Your Health

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Do you think of elderly people as weak, helpless and generally worthless? If so, you've greatly increased the odds you'll fit that profile yourself someday — because of a serious heart problem.

Numerous studies have concluded that cultural stereotypes surrounding old age affect the way seniors see themselves, often to the detriment of their health (if you believe people your at age are supposed to be feeble, chances are you won’t be doing much exercise).

A paper just published in the journal Psychological Science finds holding such negative beliefs earlier in life can also be damaging. Specifically, it concludes that younger adults who hold negative stereotypes about old age have a greater likelihood of experiencing cardiovascular problems as seniors.

A research team led by Becca Levy of the Yale School of Public Health examined a sample of nearly 400 people who participated in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. All were between the ages of 18 and 49 when they began participating in that project, and none had experienced cardiovascular problems.

Their attitude toward the elderly was measured by their answers on the standard Attitude Towards Old People Scale. That questionnaire poses a series of statements (including “Most old people are set in their ways and unable to change” and “Most old people let their homes become shabby and unattractive”), to which people respond on a six-point scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree.”

Looking at 38 years of data, the researchers noted when and if each individual experienced a serious cardiovascular event, including congestive heart failure, myocardial infarction or stroke. After taking into account a variety of risk factors, including blood pressure, smoking and family history of heart problems, they examined the effect of holding negative age stereotypes.

The results were as attention-grabbing as, well, a heart attack: “Younger individuals who held more negative age stereotypes were significantly more likely to experience a cardiovascular event over the next 38 years,” they report.

This correlation proved true at every time point they looked at. For example, “30 years after taking the age-stereotype test, 25 percent of those in the negative-age-stereotype group had experienced a cardiovascular event, compared to 13 percent in the positive-age-stereotype group.”

Some reasons for this are suggested in Levy’s previous research, which found that individuals who apply negative age stereotypes to demonstrated a higher cardiovascular response to stress, as measured by heart rate and blood pressure. In addition, they were more likely to engage in poor health habits, including smoking.

“The study suggests that age stereotypes internalized earlier in life can have a far-reaching effect on health,” the researchers conclude. “In turn, this finding suggests that programs aimed at reducing the negative age stereotypes of younger individuals could benefit their cardiovascular health when they become older individuals.”

Perhaps a series of public-health announcements featuring healthy, productive people in their 80s is in order.