Actually names can hurt you…sticks and stones can break your bones, but ageism affects the health of older adults. When older adults are at the receiving end of ageist comments they internalize what they hear, so much so that this lower self-concept results in a slower walking gait, brain changes of Alzheimer’s disease and even a shorter life span. Researchers with the World Health Organization and the Yale School of Public Health have demonstrated a negative link between ageist labeling and senior mind-set.
But the good news is they have shown that a positive mind set makes a positive difference in health like walking speed, balance, memory and longevity. This last one comes from what one of the researchers says is a person’s “will to live” which actually results in longer lives. And the individuals who benefit may not even be aware of the positive or negative self-concepts they have developed; it’s often subliminal. In one study adults between 60 and 90 years of age were randomly divided into two groups, but all were first administered a memory test. One group was placed in front of computer screen that flashed positive words about aging and the other group was shown negative words. The words flashed faster than anyone could read, but they made a difference subliminally. Those in the negative exposure group were flashed words like “decline” or “decrepit” and more. The others were flashed words like “sage” and “accomplished.” Both groups then took a memory test again, and the first group showed a decline in ability to recall versus those in the positive group who showed an improvement in their recall.
In a separate study in Ohio with about seven times more subjects over 20 years they showed that negative attitude participants died an average of 7.5 years earlier than those with a positive attitudes. Some explain this as part of an evolution of how we look at “seniors” in our culture. Language has become increasingly negative in our literature over the past 200 years and age has come to be viewed as a medical condition. So, what do you get for a medical condition when you visit a doctor…most often another prescription to add to what you already are taking? And what do most medications have? …side effects. Did he jump or was he pushed is a question that comes to mind.
Back to the study with computer exposure to negative or positive language. Those who had been exposed to the positive language were interviewed again three weeks after the original experience, and they were significantly better still at the memory and physical tests. This is where it gets to be both a half empty and a half full glass. If through actions or words older adults are reinforced with negative language or behavior, they won’t let you down…they will go downhill in their abilities and their sense of themselves. Those who are exposed to positive situations and affirming language actually become happier…and healthier. So, please think about how you talk with your older loved one next opportunity you have…what you say…and how you act will have a measureable impact on their quality of life.
Charlotte Bishop is an Aging Life Care Advisor, Geriatric Care Manager and founder of Creative Care Management, certified professionals who are geriatric advocates, resources, counselors and friends to older adults and their families in metropolitan Chicago. She also is the co-author of How Do I Know You? A Caregiver’s Lifesaver for Dealing with Dementia.