In previous Newsletters I have discussed "the Enemy Within” . This is the negative stereotype of being old that we all hold. We apply it to other people when we are being ageist. We also apply it to ourselves. When we search for a script of how to “play the part of being old” we may tap into that negative pool. It can be triggered or “primed” by an act of ageism. (see Newsletter #079 “Pencil Chewing” for a discussion of priming). That is why Consumer Ageism is so dangerous. Those day to day ageist interactions can cause the “enemy Within” to emerge (Newsletter #017: “The Enemy Within”).
There is an upside to this story. We can be primed positively. We can invoke a positive view of ageing. It turns out that we have a powerful “Friend Within”. Our stereotypes are not all negative. Priming the Friend can affect our health, our cognitive abilities and even our senses. This is the story told in “Breaking the Age Code” by Becca Levy. Her focus is on our attitudes towards ageing.
There are ways to measure those attitudes. In previous Newsletters I have discussed “Felt Age” (Newsletter #034: “Which Time Is It?”). The age we give when asked how old we feel. This is one way. Levy uses an “Image of Age” scale. This has ten positive and ten negative adjectives describing an older person. Respondents score their agreement and disagreement with each.
The Impact of “the Friend Within”
Manipulating the “Enemy Within” experimentally has been done in many ways. It can be done with a negative environment for the experiment. It can be the wording of instructions etc. (Newsletter #056: “Beware Psychologists Carrying Tests”). Instead Levy uses a subliminal stimulus. Participants are sat in front of a computer screen and are asked to focus on a bullseye. Words are flashed on the screen. The speed is adjusted, for each person, so there is “perception without awareness”. This precludes a rational or defensive response to the words but they are still registered. Some people receive positive words about age such as “wise”, “alert” or “learned”. Others get negative connotations such as “Alzheimer’s”, “senile” and “ confused”.
Using this approach has generated some enlightening findings. With ten minutes of priming the impact on a memory test was profound. Those with positive priming scored higher than those with no priming. Those with negative priming worst. This happened whether you were a sixty year old college dropout or a ninety year old professor.
What is surprising is that those positive attitudes can be “trained” and that they can persist. In a senior housing complex the positive “subliminal” priming improved participants mobility. Participants were of an age where repeatedly standing up and then sitting down in a chair was a problem. So too was balancing or even walking quite short distances. Having been primed positively they found it easier to move about and were more proactive in doing so. Unfortunately it started to fade after a week.
To try to prolong the effect the priming was repeated once every week for a month. The result was that the effects continued until four weeks after the last administration. They also grew in impact. The result was bigger because of a “snowball effect”. The improvements in mobility, reinforced the positive attitudes. People felt heathier. Their attitudes towards ageing improved. That reinforcement led not only to more physical improvement. Participants joined theatre groups and started to socialize more.
In previous Newsletters we have seen how ones’ felt age influences life expectancy. So it is with the “Friend Within”. Some longitudinal ageing studies measured attitudes towards ageing. They did this when the panel of respondents was first established. They have been going long enough to now relate that to life expectancy. The researchers allowed for other potential vulnerabilities. Those with a positive view of ageing lived seven and a half years longer than those with a negative view. This is the same finding as felt age. Those who start with a lower felt age relative to their chronological age live long.
The Genes are not everything
How can such health effects come about? There are a set of behavioural levers. Feeling more positive about ageing means that you take care of yourself. You might not get into bad habits in your diet. You might exercise more. Feeling negatively you might not even bother to take your prescription medicine. There is a psychological impact as we have seen.
For example, there is evidence that attitude affects recovery from injury. Older people who have an injury, a fall or an accident recover at different rates. It is not true that all older people take longer to recover. It is older people with a negative attitude to ageing that take more time. Those with a positive attitude recover as well as the young.
More intriguing is the potential impact on the way your genes express themselves. There is a particular gene associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have found individuals who have this gene and do not get the disease. There is growing evidence that one reason for this is their positive attitude towards growing old. This is influencing the way that the genes express themselves.
Our age stereotypes are malleable.
Perhaps the most exciting insight from these studies is that our stereotypes are malleable. We know stereotypes have changed over the centuries. Over the past two hundred and fifty years attitudes have gone from old being positive to negative. (Newsletter #066: “250 Years of Ageism”). What these studies have shown is proactive rapid changing. By priming words like “fit” and “spry” the participants “enemy within” was defeated. Their attitude towards ageing improved. A virtuous circle could be created.