Becca Levy and colleagues used data collected from 1968 onwards from 386 people regarding their belief in age stereotypes. The participants, who were aged 36.5 years on average when first approached, had stated their agreement with views like “old people are helpless”.
Levy’s team then looked to see which participants had suffered a cardiovascular illness such as heart attack or stroke between 1968 and 2007. There were 89 such cardiovascular events in total.
Amazingly, participants who earlier held negative views about older people were subsequently more likely to suffer a cardiovascular illness over the next 38 years, than were the participants who had held more positive views about ageing. For example, 30 years after the questions about ageing, 25 per cent of those who’d espoused negative views had suffered an illness compared with just 13 per cent of those who’d held positive views.
Crucially, this association held even after controlling for a raft of other factors that might have explained the link, including health at baseline, family medical history and body mass index at baseline. “This finding suggests that programmes aimed at reducing the negative age stereotypes of younger individuals could benefit their cardiovascular health when they become older individuals,” the researchers said.
The Digest asked Becca Levy what the possible mechanism underlying the link between earlier views and later health could be. “In previous studies we have found that age stereotype can impact how older individuals take in stressors,” she said, “such that those with exposure to more negative age stereotypes tended to have an exaggerated cardiovascular response to stressors whereas those exposed to more positive age stereotypes tend to be protected.” In other words, people’s own age prejudices could be making them more vulnerable to the harmful effects of stress later in life. Another possibility, Levy said, was that people with negative views of old age tend to take less good care of themselves as they get older – perhaps attending fewer health appointments or performing less exercise.
Levy, B., Zonderman, A., Slade, M., & Ferrucci, L. (2009). Age Stereotypes Held Earlier in Life Predict Cardiovascular Events in Later Life. Psychological Science, 20 (3), 296-298 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02298.x