In our anti-aging obsessed culture, it's easy to fall into the trap of believing that aging is inherently bad. But, according to new research conducted at Yale University, those very beliefs can have a major impact on how we experience aging.
A new study, published April 12 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, looked at the way beliefs about aging affected recovery from moderate cognitive impairment (MCI) in adults over 65. Scientists tracked 1,716 individuals over the course of 12 years to see if they could predict who would experience MCI and who would be most likely to recover from MCI.
The researchers on the team, led by Becca Levy, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University and author of the book "Breaking the Age Code," were trying to figure out whether — and how much — peoples' beliefs about aging impacted MCI. They do, it turns out — a lot.
Having positive beliefs can help your cognitive health
What researchers found was that people who had positive beliefs about aging were 30% more likely to recover from MCI than those who did not. Not only that, but participants who had positive beliefs about aging were also significantly less likely to experience cognitive impairment at all, Levy says.
In case you're not sure what MCI actually means, Levy says it's a clinical term that "refers to mild changes in a number of cognitive functions, including memory and attention. ... It’s a performance-based measure, and there are cut off points that have been established and validated."
For the study, researchers tested how well participants performed at various cognitive tasks at different points over the 12 years. "So if somebody gets below a certain amount, they're considered to be in the mild cognitive impairment group. And if they get above the cut point, they're considered to be in normal cognition," says Levy.
What all that means is that when people who had positive ideas about aging experienced MCI — as measured by a low score on the performance test — they were 30% more likely to return to the "normal cognition" range than people who did not. In other words, people who felt good about aging were more likely to recover from cognitive impairment.
Basically, if you have positive beliefs about again, you're less likely to experience cognitive impairment and more likely to recover if you do.
A lot of common beliefs about aging are false
This research seems to fly in the face of the common assumption that cognitive decline is an inevitable part of aging. That's because many assumptions that society holds about aging are just that, says Levy, and they are part of the challenge of developing positive beliefs about aging. Part of her book involves breaking down the myths we have about aging and presenting the facts.
"There is research to show that there are cognitive skills that stay the same or get better ... later in life," says Levy.
If you're wondering how exactly to change your beliefs about aging in a way that secures your own cognitive health, replacing negative stereotypes of older people with positive, evidence-based images is part of it. But because many of our ideas about aging come from the larger culture, they must be structurally addressed, says Levy.
"I am very interested in social movements to overcome ageism," says Levy. Like other kinds of marginalization, ageism must be addressed on the global stage, she adds. For example, the World Health Organization launched a campaign to overcome ageism.
You can change your beliefs about aging
But what can you do as an individual to ensure that you become or stay a spry, silver fox? Levy recommends keeping an age belief journal for a week.
"People can write down for a week all the messages about aging that they encounter, whether it's on television or social media or everyday conversation. Also write down when there's an absence of age beliefs or older people represented in media or what you're encountering," Levy explains, adding that representation, or lack thereof, matters.
Developing positive beliefs about aging may sound difficult, given that we are so constantly confronted with negative beliefs about aging that we may not even notice. For example, telling someone that they look great for their age may seem like a compliment, but it actually belies a bit of age bias.
"The messaging that promotes ageism can be can be very, very subtle," says Levy.