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Negative Stereotypes About Aging May Shorten Your Life by Affecting Will to Live

WASHINGTON -- Even if we are not aware of them, negative thoughts about aging that we pick up from society may be cutting years off our lives, according to Becca Levy, Ph.D., the lead researcher of a study conducted at Yale University's Department of Epidemiology and Public Health. The study found that older people with more positive self-perceptions of aging, measured up to 23 years earlier, lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging. The findings appear in the August issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

The 7.5 year higher longevity for those with the more positive attitudes toward aging remained even after other factors were taken into account, including age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness and overall health. "The effect of more positive self-perceptions of aging on survival is greater than the physiological measures of low systolic blood pressure and cholesterol, each of which is associated with a longer lifespan of four years or less," said the study authors. "It is also greater than the independent contributions of lower body mass index, no history of smoking, and a tendency to exercise, each of these factors has been found to contribute between one and three years of added life."

Using information from 660 participants aged 50 and older from a small town in Ohio who were part of the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement (OLSAR), Dr. Levy and her co-authors, Martin D. Slade, MPH and Stanislav V. Kasl, Ph.D., of Yale University and Suzanne Kunkel, Ph.D., of Miami University of Ohio, compared mortality rates to responses made 23 years earlier by the participants (338 men and 322 women). The responses included agreeing or disagreeing with such statements as "As you get older, you are less useful."

In the same study, the researchers also find that the will to live partially accounts for the relationship between positive self-perceptions of aging and survival, but does not completely account for difference in longevity. Another factor likely involved, according to the researchers, is cardiovascular response to stress, which Dr. Levy's earlier research has shown can be adversely affected when elderly persons are exposed to negative stereotypes of aging.

These negative views of aging can operate without older people's awareness, say the researchers, because they are thought to be internalized in childhood and unlikely to be consciously evaluated as we get older.

"Our study carries two messages. The discouraging one is that negative self-perceptions can diminish life expectancy; the encouraging one is that positive self-perceptions can prolong life expectancy," say the authors.

Article: "Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging," Becca R. Levy and Martin D. Slade, Yale University, Suzanne Kunkel, Miami University of Ohio, and Stanislav V. Kasl, Yale University; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 83, No. 2.

Full text of the article is available at: http://www.apa.org/journals/psp/press_releases/august_2002/psp832261.html

---The American Psychological Association

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