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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 27-May-11


Friday 27-May-11

Have a heart, youngster!

What do you think about old folks? Doddery old farts? Nuisance drivers? Or maybe respected citizens, wise elders or loved family. Positive or negative, we tend to stereotype older people (and younger people), imposing generalised beliefs on them and then acting towards them as if the beliefs were facts.

Rather interestingly, what you thinks of your elders changes not only how you act when you are older but also how long you live!

Starting in 1968, researcher Becca Levy and her colleagues collected data from 386 people about their belief in age stereotypes. She also collected data on their cardiovascular health, including whether they suffered from heart attacks or strokes. Remarkably, 30 years after the initial survey, 25 per cent of those who held negative views had suffered a cardiovascular illness compared with just 13 per cent of those who had positive views.

The next question, of course, is why? Levy controlled for a wide range of factors such as existing health problems so the big question is cognitive: what thinking affects health. A lot of it has to do with negativity and stress. People who have a negative views about life are generally more tense and their continuing stress level may well take its toll on the body over the years.

Another possibility is that belief becomes reality and, as they become older, they expect to become frail and confused and hence do so. It is known that cognition can make you ill as well (think placebo), so why not believe yourself into a heart attack?

The person who believes false things about others may also hold stereotyped views about various other ways of living including holding false views also about diet, exercise and so on. There are whole swathes of society where cultural norms include over-eating, excessive drinking and other bodily abuse. Such characters may also have significant ageist (and other biased) views.

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

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