The dictionary defines ageism as the "tendency to regard older persons as debilitated, unworthy of attention, or unsuitable for employment." But research indicates that ageism may not just be ill-informed or hurtful. It may also be a matter of life and death.
Not that it's literally killing people. Researcher Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health, says it depends on how much a given individual takes those negative ideas to heart.
In one study, Levy looked at people's attitudes about aging when they were in late middle age and then followed them over time. Some of these people thought of older people as weak or dependent. Others thought of them as experienced or wise. What she found was that the people who had a positive view of aging lived about 7 and half years longer than the people who saw aging in a negative light.
Now that doesn't mean that if you think positive thoughts about aging, it's OK to sit on the couch in front of the TV and eat a pound of bacon.
But according to Levy's other studies, this mind/body connection counts for a lot. For example, one showed that middle-aged people who had no cognitive impairment but did have negative views of aging were more likely to later develop the brain changes associated with Alzheimer's disease. And the more negative their views, the worse those brain changes were. On the other hand, another study found that people with positive views of older adults were much more likely to recover from major health setbacks.
A living, breathing example of how an older person can thrive if they're not weighed down by negative stereotypes is 95-year-old Jim Shute of Medford, Ore. (He's the father of SHOTS editor Nancy Shute, who's written about him here.)
His typical day? Up at 6:30 or 7, go out to get The Wall Street Journal or the local paper, read the papers over breakfast, check his rose beds and the irrigation system in the garden, trim the bushes. He also likes to fish, plays bridge once a week, hikes nearly every day, refinishes furniture and hunts for morel mushrooms in season.
Maybe it's not necessary to do all of those things, but having something that gives one's life a sense of purpose can pay amazing health dividends, according to researcher Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist and behavioral scientist at Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago.
Purpose, says Boyle, doesn't have to be something complicated and lofty, just something that's goal oriented and gives you a sense of accomplishment.
"People who have the sense that their life is meaningful are much less likely to suffer early mortality, they're less like to develop disability, that is, trouble taking care of themselves," says Boyle.
Boyle says having a purpose in life is a robust predictor of how well someone will live and thrive as they age.
It's not something a doctor can prescribe as easily as a change in diet. But whether it's doctor's orders or society at large, attitudes do change. And Levy's and Boyles' research suggests that if people don't assume that they'll be useless when they're older, the payoff could be huge.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The dictionary definition of ageism is a tendency to regard older persons as debilitated, unworthy of attention or unsuitable for employment. But research indicates that ageism may not just be ill-informed and unkind but a matter of life and death. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging. She joins us again for a conversation we call 1 in 5 for the one-fifth of the U.S. population that will be 65 years old or more by the year 2030. Ina, thanks for being back with us.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.
SIMON: So I understand that ageism can make people feel lousy. But how does it get to be a life-and-death matter?
JAFFE: Well, it actually depends on whether individuals take these negative ideas to heart. There's a researcher named Becca Levy. She's a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale. And she did a study that looked at people's attitudes about aging when they were, let's say, in late middle age and then followed them over time.
So some thought of older people as weak or dependent and so on and others thought of them as experienced or wise. And what she found was that the people who had a positive view of aging lived about seven and a half years longer than the people who saw aging in a negative way.
SIMON: But, you know, what about diet, exercise, vitamin supplements, all the stuff we hear about?
JAFFE: Well, that stuff counts too. I don't want to tell people to think positive thoughts about aging and then go sit in front of the TV and eat a pound of bacon. But according to Levy's other studies, this mind-body connection counts for a lot. For instance, people who were healthy in middle age but had negative views of aging were more likely to have later developed the brain changes associated with Alzheimer's disease.
And what inspired Levy to investigate these connections was the time she spent in Japan as a grad student, noticing that people there live longer than they did in the United States and that they were treated better and revered by their society.
BECCA LEVY: So that prompted me to start thinking about whether there may be a relationship between these cultural views of aging and the health of the older members of the society.
SIMON: I mean, as she suggests, there does seem to be a different cultural view in the United States where everybody seems to want that younger 18 to 34 demographic. But you're suggesting that positive views of aging can actually prolong life expectancy and improve the quality of life.
JAFFE: Well, I'm not saying that her research seems to suggest that. But let me tell you about a living, breathing example of what she's talking about. He happens to be the father of our colleague Nancy Shute, who's an editor on NPR's health blog, SHOTS. His name is Jim Shute. He's 95 years old. And I called him a few days ago at his home in Oregon.
How you doing today, Mr. Shute?
JIM SHUTE: Well, I'm doing fine. On a scale about 1 to 10, I'd say a maybe seven or eight. Somewhere in that neighborhood.
SIMON: (Laughter) You know, seven or eight's very good at any age.
JAFFE: Here's a secret, Scott. He's really busy.
SHUTE: I usually get up around 7 or 6:30, and I go out and get the Wall Street Journal or local tribune paper. I like to fish. And I'm trying to sneak out maybe tomorrow and hunt for some morel mushrooms.
JAFFE: Mr. Shute says he also hikes every day and refinishes furniture and plays bridge. And now I need a nap.
SIMON: I'm going to guess it's the mushrooms.
SIMON: I always knew that, yeah.
JAFFE: Yeah, well, according to research, any one of those things might do the trick. And the researcher who has found that is Patricia Boyle. She's a neuropsychologist and behavioral scientist at Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago. So what she studies is purpose in life. Her study suggests that having purpose in life has a positive impact on a wide range of health issues.
SIMON: Having a purpose in life seems to animate everything. But it's not something that a doctor can write out on a slip of paper and hand to you and you get it filled somewhere.
JAFFE: Well, that's true, Scott. But attitudes change whether it's a doctor's encouragement or family or the society at large. These studies suggest that if people don't assume that they'll be useless when they're old, the payoff could be really big.
SIMON: NPR's Ina Jaffe at NPR West, thanks so much.
JAFFE: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.