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Deciphering Ageism's Code

Yale psychologist Dr. Becca Levy offers powerful insights on how perceiving aging affects the experiencing of it.


Some important books have been written about the social causes of age discrimination and its many serious effects in our lives. However, a missing piece in those discussions has been an in-depth study of the psychological mechanism that connects those causes and those effects. How, exactly, do we form ageist ideas in our minds? And what, exactly, happens to us emotionally, physically, and socially when we live according to those beliefs?

Thankfully, we now find answers to those questions in a remarkable and highly readable book by Yale psychologist Dr. Becca Levy called Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live.

According to Levy, "Age beliefs don't exist in a vacuum; they occupy the thrones of our minds, which are the control rooms for our bodies. They are part and parcel of how we code aging. They affect how we, as a culture and individuals, design, structure, and experience old age. This is why their effects ripple out in such significant ways, changing not just how we remember, but how we behave, including whether we pass on our knowledge to others."

Levy and her research team have thought a lot about how to best understand and explain human perceptions of aging. And she deftly summarizes the powerful scientific strategies they used in measuring them.

Here's one to try out for yourself: Think of an old person. What five words or phrases first come into your mind?

Dr. Becca Levy

Were your answers basically positive, such as "wise," "experienced," "respected," "kind," or "leading an active life"? Or were they negative terms such as "senile," "cranky," "frail," "slow," or "needs help"?

According to Levy's research, not only do your answers tell a lot about how you feel about the aging process, but through numerous fascinating experiments, Levy has found that adhering to negative beliefs about getting older can, in later years, affect your memory, balance, hearing, cardiovascular health, recovery from illness/injury, and even lifespan –– shortening it by an average of 7.5 years.

In addition to giving people that five word/phrase exercise to assess their positive or negative views about aging, Levy's team applied another technique called "implicit priming," in which the participating subjects saw positive or negative aging-related words flashed on a screen too quickly to be consciously aware of them and then were asked to perform a mental or physical task. When exposed to positive words, they performed significantly better than when they were exposed to negative ones.

Much more than a compendium of research studies, Levy's book is a clear summary of how ageist beliefs affect our notions of older-adult creativity, what we individuals must do to be free from ageist beliefs, and how we can launch an Age Liberation Movement to eradicate those beliefs from our culture.

Moreover, in three extraordinary appendices, Levy provides us with an anti-ageism tool kit to use in our lives.

Appendix 1 contains her "ABC Method to Bolster Positive Age Beliefs." The method offers exercises that 1) increase our Awareness of ageist images and practices, 2) help us shift the Blame of age-based problems away from the aging process and toward ageism itself, and 3) encourage us to Challenge ageism whenever and wherever we find it.

Appendix 2 supplies us with 14 powerful talking points that serve as "Ammunition to Debunk Negative Age Stereotypes."

While Appendices 1 and 2 outline "bottom-up," grassroots strategies for individuals to use, Appendix 3 is "A Call to End Structural Ageism," a "top-down" manifesto challenging administrators and decision-makers in the realms of medicine, mental health-care, government, education, the workplace, the anti-aging and advertisement industries, popular culture, the media, physical space (housing, zoning, social/generational isolation, internet access, natural-disaster planning), and science.

Levy sums up the ageism code in this way: "Age beliefs start in the environment, but then become absorbed by the person. In other words, they're a joint effort between individuals and the culture they live in....When it comes to how we age, society is often the cause, and biology the effect."

Thanks to this intrepid psychologist and her dedicated research team, we now have a way to decipher ageism's messages ... in the hopes of erasing them once and for all.


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