Views on Old Age May Become Reality Later
"If people hold more negative views of aging, they may be less likely to walk the extra block or engage in healthy behaviors as they get older," explained study author Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale School of Public Health.
The findings don't confirm that negative assumptions about aging in young people directly cause them to develop cardiovascular problems later. But there's clearly a link, Levy said, and the association held up even when researchers adjusted their statistics to take into account the influence of other factors such as depression.
Levy and colleagues have been studying the stereotypes older people have about aging, trying to gauge how they affect their health. "This is our first study to look at younger adults and the age stereotypes they express, and follow them over time," said Levy.
The researchers looked at an aging study that tracked 386 people aged 18 to 49, beginning in 1968. Only 81 people in the group were women; 305 were men.
The participants took surveys that asked them if they believed various statements about the elderly, such as "old people are helpless."
The researchers then tried to find links between their responses and their likelihood of suffering from a heart attack, heart failure, angina, stroke or "mini-strokes" by 2007.
The findings were published in the March issue of Psychological Science.
After adjusting their figures to account for the influence of other factors, the researchers found that 25 percent of those who believed negative age "stereotypes" had experienced heart problems in the 30 years after answering the initial questions. By comparison, the figure was 13 percent in those who believed positive stereotypes about aging.
Previous research has suggested that people exposed to negative stereotypes have more difficult tolerating stress, Levy said. "I think negative stereotypes have components that are more stress-inducing."
It's also possible that genetics play a role, said S. Jay Olshansky, a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
"Perhaps younger people with positive views of aging have them, because they are healthier or because they have older relatives who are healthier," Olshansky said. "In either case, the outcome would not be a product of the 'belief,' but rather, the fact that they inherited a genetic potential for a healthier old age that they see and experience in themselves or see in their older relatives."
It's unlikely that simply thinking "happy thoughts" about aging will make people live happily ever after, he said. "Health begets health -- when you see healthy older relatives, you are likely to develop a positive view of aging."