How Can Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging Boost Your Health?

Embodied positive and negative age stereotypes

Positive and negative age-related stereotypes held by older people predict beneficial and detrimental effects on health and well-being, respectively. Becca Levy’s research over the past two decades led to a theory of stereotype embodiment. According to Levy, stereotypes from the surrounding culture become embodied when individuals accept the stereotypes as self-defining. The four components of stereotype embodiment include 1) internalization beginning in youth and continuing across the life span, 2) unconscious operation, 3) importance from being self-relevant, and 4) operating along multiple pathways. Stereotype embodiment operates along psychological, behavioral, and physiological pathways.

As a youth, I distinctly remember regarding my older relatives as enrollees in ‘Medicare College’, which was populated by antiquarians. I had no desire to be a member of Medicare College, but now I am. I had no conscious awareness that my conception of older people might come back to haunt me later in life. More recently, I’ve worked to disabuse myself of the belief that being older is perforce negative.

Reduced physiological stress response

Levy and colleagues devised an experiment to test if subliminally delivered negative or positive age-related priming would affect their physiology. In particular, would older people first subjected negative priming then to stressful situations show increased stress response? Would the reverse be true for those first exposed to positive primes followed by stressful situations?

The experiment included 53 participants, 29 women and 24 men, aged 62 – 82. Subliminal primes were delivered on a computer screen. Examples of negative age-related priming words included Alzheimer’s, confused, decline, decrepit, and diseases. Examples of positive age-related prime words included accomplished, alert, astute, insightful, and learned. Stressful activities included two mathematical challenges (counting backwards from 965 or 375 in decrements of 7) and two verbal challenges (three minutes of talking about two stressful events from the past five years with a researcher’s tape recorder keeping time). Primes were delivered twice, once before the first set of challenges and once before the second set of challenges. Physiological responses included systolic and diastolic blood pressure, heart rate, and skin conductance.

The researchers found that subjects who received negative age-related primes had significant increases in systolic and diastolic blood pressure and skin conductance from baseline. On the other hand, subjects who received positive age-related primes did not have significant increases in these same factors. Increases in systolic and diastolic blood pressure and skin conductance persisted for about 30 minutes after the intervention ended. This study was the first to demonstrate increased stress response as a result in negative age-related priming followed by stressful challenges and lack of a stress response as a result of positive age-related priming. This study reinforces the value of developing a positive mental attitude, which can include consciously choosing positive age-related stereotypes. You could improve your health by embracing positive age-stereotypes.

More preventive health behaviors

It seems logical that people who hold positive perceptions of aging would be more likely to adopt preventive health behaviors. Two researchers from Yale University used data from the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement, which began in 1975, to test this idea. At baseline, participants were asked a series of questions regarding their beliefs about aging on a five-point scale. In 1995, those participants still in the study were asked whether they employed eight preventive health items on a scale ranging from “never” to “always.”  The researchers found that participants with a positive self-perception of aging in 1975 employed significantly more health behaviors 20 years later in 1995 than participants with a negative self-perception. Multivariate analysis, adjusted for confounding factors, showed that positive self-perceptions of aging and education were positively associated with health behaviors over the next 20 years. Thus, modifying self-perceptions of aging might be an effective means to improve the health of older people.

Less inflammation

A more positive view of aging might reduce inflammation, thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the US. Researchers at Yale used data from 4,149 participants with an average age of 68 years in the Health and Retirement Study to see if participants with lower levels of C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) would live longer. In fact, participants with higher self-perceptions of aging at baseline had longer survival over two years following measurement of C-reactive protein. In addition, higher baseline positive self-perceptions of aging predicted lower C-reactive protein levels four years later. Finally, the indirect effect of inflammation (measured as C-reactive protein levels) partially mediated the effect of positive self-perceptions of aging on survival. Thus, higher self-perceptions of aging appear to directly and indirectly (through less inflammation) increase survival.

Greater self-efficacy

Positive self-perceptions of aging predict higher levels of physical activity. Might positive self-perceptions of aging induce greater feelings of self-efficacy, which in turn promote greater physical activity? Self-efficacy refers one’s perceived ability to identify, organize, and conduct actions necessary to achieve a goal. Researchers in Israel studied this question by conducting detailed interviews with 1,216 community members age 75 years and older (average age 81 years) in three towns in Israel. The interviews were repeated with 879 of the original cohort two years later. Baseline self-perceptions of aging predicted physical functioning after two years and not the other way around. In addition, greater baseline self-perceptions of aging predicted higher self-efficacy after two years. When self-efficacy was incorporated into the statistical model, the significant effect of baseline self-perceptions of aging on physical functioning became statistically non-significant. This means that self-efficacy fully mediated the effect of positive self-perceptions on physical functioning. This finding aligns with Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory which emphasizes self-efficacy as the primary predictor of personal well-being.

Greater self-efficacy, better diet

Researchers in Germany wondered if positive self-perceptions of aging would create greater self-efficacy, which would induce intentions to eat heathier, thereby leading to healthier eating habits. Study subjects included 550 participants ranging in age from 18-92 years (average 44 years) in the Konstanz Life Study. Participants who had greater positive age-stereotypes at baseline had healthier eating habits one year later, after accounting for baseline eating, age, and gender, among other factors. Greater self-efficacy at baseline and intention to eat healthier at six months tempered the effect of positive self-perceptions of aging on healthy eating after one year. Greater positive self-perceptions of aging had stronger effects for older participants. Thus, positive self-perceptions of aging fostered greater self-efficacy and intentions to eat healthier, which led to healthier eating after one year.

Abundant evidence suggests that you'll enjoy better health if you embrace positive stereotypes of aging.


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