Is age just a number?

Thinking positively about being old has surprisingly powerful effects.

In my years of teaching undergraduates, there were many instances in which students seemed clueless — and had poor memories. A student would come by my office asking how to get to their classroom. I’d say, “What’s the name of your subject?” “I can’t remember.” Then there were students about to hand in their assignments who couldn’t remember the name of their tutor.

            If these students had been 60 years old, we might have said they were having a “senior moment.” But they were 20. Were they having a “junior moment”?

            During a class, students would sometimes forget the names of their classmates — if they ever learned them — or get the day of the week wrong, among other simple mistakes.

            Then there was the challenge of finding their way around the building where I work, the notorious building 19. Many students needed directions. We used to say that once they could find their way around building 19, we’d give them a degree.

            The idea of a “senior moment” reflects a cultural assumption that older people’s memories fail. This same cultural expectation is apparent in all sorts of areas, from physical activity to job opportunities.

Breaking the age code

What are your age beliefs? Here’s a simple test. Imagine an old person and write down the first five words or phrases that come to mind, anything from “my grannie” to “absent-minded” or “helpful.” If you come up with words like “doddery” and think getting old means going downhill, losing your memory, becoming incapacitated and senile, then you have “negative age beliefs.” On the other hand, if you come up with words like “graceful” and think of old age as a time of wisdom, maturity and emotional stability, you have positive age beliefs. Does it matter what sort of beliefs you have? For the answer, get Becca Levy’s powerful new book Breaking the age code.

            Her answer is a resounding yes. Levy is a Yale University researcher who has been studying many aspects of age beliefs for decades. What she and co-authors discovered is striking: individuals with positive age beliefs do better in all sorts of ways. They do better both physically and mentally. Is this just a placebo effect? If so, it’s a powerful one that can improve your biomarkers and your performance on mental acuity tests.

“In study after study I conducted, I found that older people with more-positive perceptions of aging performed better physically and cognitively that those with more-negative perceptions; they were more likely to recover from severe disability, they remembered better, they walked faster, and they even lived longer. I was also able to show that many of the cognitive and physiological challenges we think of as linked to growing old — things like hearing loss and cardiovascular disease — are also the products of age beliefs absorbed from our social surroundings.” (p. 5)

            Levy had been doing research for years when one study suddenly made her a media star. She looked at the difference in life span between individuals with the most positive and the most negative age beliefs. “What I found was startling. Participants with the most-positive views of aging were living, on average, seven and a half years longer than those with the most-negative views.” (p. 93) That made people sit up and listen.

            However, changing your beliefs is not all that easy. If you imagine that you can say, “I’ll just start thinking positively about being older, and reap all those benefits,” think again. Individual beliefs can make a difference, but it’s hard to go against the surrounding culture. If nearly everyone around you has negative age beliefs, and speaks and acts accordingly, you’re almost bound to be influenced — negatively.

            When co-workers, faced with a challenging task, turn to younger colleagues and ignore you, you may feel unneeded, and furthermore you miss out on the intellectual and social stimulation that can help you maintain and develop your capacities. When doctors treat your ailments as “just getting old” and hence as less urgent than the same ailments in younger patients, you miss out on the help you need.

            Levy studied cultures where elders are respected. In such cultures, older people thrive. It’s as if they live up to expectations. Others’ beliefs affect what opportunities you have. If you’re continually challenged, mentally and physically, you are more likely to maintain your capacities.


Watching academic appointments over decades, I’ve seen a preference for promise over performance: a younger applicant with “promise” is favoured over an older one with a solid record. Sometimes it seems to me that some of those on appointment committees don’t want to hire someone for a junior position who has achievements comparable to their own. This is just my impression but it accords with everything Levy says. She says ageism in employment, in the US anyway, is standard practice despite evidence that older workers can be creative, are more reliable, have fewer accidents and have more life wisdom. Discrimination in the workplace on the basis of gender or ethnicity is treated as a serious matter, even a legal matter, but there is no similar taboo against ageism.

            I talked with colleagues who, like me, are unpaid but still researching. Many of us have extensive experience and would be pleased to be more involved giving guest lectures, assessing theses, mentoring and helping in other ways. But it seems no one in authority is interested. If you’re retired or otherwise unpaid, you’re just about invisible.

            Another arena where ageism has major impacts is health care. Levy says that negative age stereotypes inform western medicine, and also notes that there’s more money in medicating disease than in preventing it through exercise and other means.

            I’ve often read about the impending demographic crisis of ageing: as a country’s population gets older, there will be fewer people of working age to support the greater numbers of the elderly with their greater demands on health services. One of the aspects of this “crisis” is self-inflicted: the requirement or pressure for people to retire, and the difficulty older workers have in finding a new job. The so-called demographic crisis would not be a problem if older people had greater opportunities to continue working. There’s another aspect: Levy cites a study showing that countries with older populations do not have higher public health expenditures. This goes against the usual assumption, and undermines the rationale for government policies to boost the birth rate or encourage immigration of young people.

            Over the years, I’ve occasionally run into someone I hadn’t seen in many years who says, “You haven’t changed a bit.” This sort of comment annoyed me in some way I couldn’t articulate, because of course I look considerably older than ten or twenty years ago. Levy explains that telling someone they haven’t aged is intended as a compliment but implies that ageing should be denied or is bad. Perhaps I should respond, “Actually, I’d really like to look older and more distinguished!”

Making a difference

Even if you live in a society with negative age beliefs, you can resist the messages around you and help to change attitudes. Levy offers a variety of practical exercises to change negative age beliefs to positive, based on changing people’s awareness and understanding, and confronting ageism. In one of the appendices, she provides information to challenge false age stereotypes. For example, you can counter the view that “Older workers aren’t effective in the workplace” by citing information that “Older workers take fewer days off for sickness, benefit from experience, have strong work ethics, and are often innovative.” (p.212).

            In Australia, there is no mandatory retirement age, but the way pension systems are set up discourages working past the 60s, and added to this are strong pressures to retire and give opportunities to younger workers. Levy tells about Jonas, a paediatrician, who retired from clinical practice, while continuing to teach. Jonas had much to offer, and told Levy, “I realized at the very end of my clinical career that most people retire as soon as they get good at something.” (p. 68) To cover his accumulated knowledge and abilities, the university had to hire two younger doctors.

            It seems the economic system is set up to throw away vast amounts of accumulated wisdom, yet people don’t recognise what’s happening because of the prevalence of negative age beliefs. Read Breaking the Age Code and help bring about change.

Becca Levy

Brian Martin