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Monday, March 16, 2009

Negative Views of Old Age Translate to Poorer Health

It is often said that we are what we eat. In reality, we are what we think and feel, too. Add that to the fact that ageist mentalities are still very much prevalent today, with many holding stereotypical views of elderly persons being incompetent, helpless, or even burdens, and we have a situation whereby the vast majority of people would probably dread the thought of growing old. Now, a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science has suggested that there is a degree of self-fulfillment in such negative mindsets, having found that persons who hold negative views of older persons tend to have poorer health later on in life.

Details and Findings of Study

For the study, the researchers had looked at information on 440 men and women who had participated in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, which ran for close to four decades. That aging study had commenced in 1968, at which time the study subjects were all healthy and aged between 18 and 49. As part of the study, various information on the subjects, including their health records as well as their views about the elderly, were collected.

The study team unveiled a strong association between ageism and poorer cardiovascular health later in life. Three decades after the commencement of the Baltimore study, 25% of the persons who held lowly views of old age, associating it with weakness or helplessness, had been struck by a heart condition or stroke. On the other hand, of those with positive views of old age, only 13% had been affected.

Mindsets When Young Impact Health Later On in Life

Previous research had already drawn a link between older persons who have negative ideas of old age and their tendency to meet them. Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health, was the leader of this latest study. She had previously also led studies which looked at negative attitudes on old age.

In one particular study she led, which was published in Journals of Gerontology in 2006, it was found that older persons who held negative stereotypes about elderly persons were more likely to suffer from hearing decline. But what is significant here is that even ageist attitudes early in life translate to poorer health as those who hold such views grow older. "We found that the age stereotypes, which tend to be acquired in childhood and young adulthood, and carried over into old age, seem to have far-reaching effects," said Levy.

Zooming in, the researchers looked at a group of study subjects who did not suffer any heart issues until they had passed 60 years old, which was at least 21 years after the start of the Baltimore study. The study team found that these persons were likely to have held negative views about old age from their younger years. There was no obvious explanation found for this increased risk of cardiovascular conditions, not even a host of other possible risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol levels, family history, education levels or depression. According to the study team, the implication of this finding is that people begin internalizing stereotypes of old age from an early age, and these viewpoints come back to haunt them, so to speak, many years later.

Why would negative viewpoints about old age cause ill-health later in life? A couple of possible explanations are that such attitudes could raise stress as well as lower the chances that one will practice a healthy lifestyle, thus elevating the risk of poor health.

Negative Views of Old Age Impact Health in More Ways Than One

On a somewhat related note, research published last year found that speaking to older persons using "elderspeak", which is an overly intimate and simplified means of communication quite similar to "baby talk", can not only be insulting and exasperating to them, but can in fact negatively affect their health. Such talk is borne of the impression that the elderly are cognitively impaired and may thus need some "help". And it seems that older persons end up meeting these poor attitudes held about them. You can read more about that study at http://www.naturalnews.com/024884.html.

Added up, what all the above information tells us is that negative stereotypes of old folks can adversely affect their health, and the cause-and-effect is at least three-fold: how the elderly view themselves, how others view the elderly, and how young people's views of aging impact their own health later on as they age.

It is clear that optimism is crucial for healthy living and healthy aging, and being able to deal with the changes which come with aging is key to maintaining control over one's own life. With populations in developed countries rapidly graying, this is a potentially serious issue, not just socially, but also health-wise. It is thus paramount that society as a whole begins to alter our attitudes about aging and the elderly.


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