I was headed to the playground the other afternoon with my 5-year-old grandson in tow when The Little Guy decided it was time to pick up the pace. “Let’s race, Grampa!” he demanded, and before I could begin negotiations, he was poised on the starting line: “Ready, get set, GO!”
He sprinted ahead at full speed while I ambled along in his wake. Ten yards ahead, he stopped and turned toward his recalcitrant opponent. “Run, Grampa!” he implored.
“You’re too fast for me,” I countered. “You’re probably the fastest kid in town.”
He waited for me to catch up and then confessed that his friend Annie always beats him in their races. I noted that Annie is a little older than he is. “Older kids usually can run faster than younger kids,” I explained.
“You’re way older than me,” he pointed out.
“Yes, but grampas don’t run,” I asserted.
That got me off the hook for the moment, but I later regretted my response. As Yale professor of public health and psychology Becca Levy, PhD, notes in her new book Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live, I had unwittingly contributed to TLG’s early indoctrination into our aging-averse culture.
“Even though we often assume kids aren’t tainted by the negative beliefs of adults, children as young as 3 have already internalized the stereotypes, including age stereotypes, of their culture enough to express them,” Levy writes. “A study of American and Canadian youngsters found that many of them already viewed older people as slow and confused.”
This is no small matter. Levy’s research suggests that a negative perception of aging can shorten your lifespan. In a seminal 2002 report based on data from the Ohio Longitudinal Study, which recorded beliefs about aging among middle-aged participants, and the National Death Index, she and her Yale colleagues determined that those who expressed the most positive views about growing old lived almost eight years longer on average than those with the most negative beliefs. Adjusting for gender, race, socioeconomic status, age, loneliness, and health, Levy found that envisioning old age in a positive light will add more years to your life than maintaining low cholesterol and blood pressure, managing a healthy weight, and even quitting cigarettes.
Part of these results can be explained by a person’s will to live. Those harboring fears and loathing about growing old, Levy found, tended to predict their later lives would be “worthless” or “empty” — a perception that affected their willingness to take care of themselves. “A common theme of negative age beliefs is that debilitation in later life is inevitable,” she writes. “As a result, we found that people with negative age beliefs, compared to those with positive age beliefs, are less likely to engage in healthy behaviors, since they regard it as futile.”
But Levy also uncovered specific biological consequences related to our perceptions of elderly life. In a 2018 study, she and her team tracked these beliefs among more than 4,000 older Americans for six years and found that those who entered their senior years with more negative views of aging harbored higher levels of C-reactive protein, a well-documented marker of stress. The inflammatory effects of chronic stress, of course, have long been linked to health issues and shorter lifespans.
To read Levy’s take on our ageist culture, it’s hard to imagine anyone reaching middle age without harboring some sense of foreboding about growing old. Take ordinary forgetfulness, for instance. When we’re young, we don’t assume impending dementia when we misplace our car keys. We assume we were just momentarily distracted. By the time we join the Medicare set, however, we’ve absorbed so many negative messages about the perils of aging from parents, grandparents, friends, and mass media that we figure any such episode can no longer be traced to some minor mental diversion. It must mean senility is knocking at the door.
“When you do this, you’re actively manifesting the stereotype you grew up hearing applied to older people, but now you’re directing it at yourself,” she explains. “This, in turn, can lead to stress, which can reduce memory performance.”
Levy has spent her entire career studying our culture’s antiaging bias, yet even she’s still prone to occasionally blame her afflictions on growing older. She recounts hobbling through a 5K race a few years ago and lamenting the sudden deterioration of her middle-age body until her teenage daughter asked her whether she had warmed up sufficiently.
In fact, Levy had arrived just before the start of the race and, neglecting to stretch, she had simply pulled a muscle. “Instead of being relieved that my body wasn’t suddenly falling to pieces, I was troubled,” she recalls. “I had instinctively attributed my injury to something other than skipping a warm-up. Instead, I had blamed my age: My mind had made connections that I don’t consciously believe — that your body falls apart as you age.”
I suppose next time my grandson challenges me to a race, I could argue that I need to warm up first, but we’re not tackling a 5K here — the finish line is just a few yards ahead — and all he really wants is for me to join him in the effort. The invitation probably means he hasn’t yet completely absorbed our culture’s messages about the perils of aging. So, the least I can do is lace up my sneakers, accept the challenge, and show him that grampas can still run.
Just not that fast.