Celebrate Your Age—It’s Good for Your HealthPosted on by
By Mary C. White, ScD
CDC Division of Cancer Prevention and Control
Chief of the Epidemiology and Applied Research Branch
A birthday card remains unsent in my desk drawer, a casualty of second thoughts. On the front, a photo shows an older woman, a “golden girl” look-alike, in a park, and she looks to her left. She strides in a red sweatsuit, white sneakers, and sunglasses. A caption over the photo says, “To stay in great physical and mental shape, I walk 5 miles every day!” Inside, the same woman, same park, same costume, looks to her right. The new caption says, “Holy $#%*! Where the heck am I?” Below the photo, the words “Happy Birthday” appear in dancing letters. Terrible, right? That’s what makes it funny. But can this kind of humor be hazardous to health? Maybe. Research shows that people’s thoughts about aging can affect their health at older ages, and bad attitudes can lead to bad outcomes.
Last year, I was one of the guest editors of a supplement to the journal The Gerontologist on the need to do more to reduce the risk of cancer among older adults. The experts who contributed to that supplement helped me understand that aging is not just about biology; culture also plays a role. Compelling new research shows that all forms of ageism—age discrimination, demeaning depictions of older people, and unfavorable beliefs older adults have about themselves—can contribute to poorer health among older adults.
Researchers have examined how ageism is internalized, or gets under the skin, under a theory Yale researcher Becca Levy called “stereotype embodiment.” Negative stereotypes about older adults are common in our culture, and not just on birthday cards. Children are introduced to negative stereotypes of old people at young ages, like the wicked old witch, and they continue to come across these as they age. According to this theory, when adults reach ages they consider are old, long-held stereotypes can shape how they see themselves. These self-perceptions can act as self-fulfilling prophecies. Adults who think that certain health problems are just part of getting older may be less likely to take the actions needed to stay healthy, like moving more and eating better. They thought they’d become ill, and that thinking helped make it come true.
A recent article summarized the findings of more than 400 studies from around the world that looked at ageism and the health of older adults. The authors concluded that ageism harms the health of older adults in two major ways. First, at a broad level, age discrimination can result in poorer access to health care, inadequate treatments for health conditions, and fewer work opportunities for older adults. Second, at a personal level, ageism can lead to isolation from others, poor self-perceptions of aging, and unhealthy behaviors.
As I’ve become more aware of the effect of ageism on health, I seek out birthday cards with positive messages, for example, “like fine wine, you get better with age.” No harm in that. After all, growing older is something worth celebrating. And walking is good for your health, too.