New research from the US finds that older people who have a positive view on aging are more likely to recover from severe disability than those who hold negative stereotypes about being older. It calls for more studies to investigate whether promoting positive age stereotypes extends independent living later in life.

Reporting in JAMA this week, the researchers, from Yale School of Public Health, say their study is the first to examine the link between positive age stereotypes and recovery from disability in older persons.

Lead author Becca R. Levy is associate professor of epidemiology (chronic diseases) and of psychology, and is also director of the School’s division of social and behavioral sciences. She tells the press in a statement that the findings suggest “how the old view their aging process could have an effect on how they experience it”.

“In previous studies, we have found that older individuals with positive age stereotypes tend to show lower cardiovascular response to stress and they tend to engage in healthier activities, which may help to explain our current findings,” she adds.

She and her colleagues explain in their background information how few studies have looked at why some older people recover from disability and others do not.

“We considered a new culture-based explanatory factor: age stereotypes (defined as beliefs about old people as a category),” they write.

For their study, they compared participants with different views of aging, categorizing them as having either a positive stereotype or a negative stereotype. Altogether there were 598 individuals, all at least aged 70, and free of disability at the start of the study, which covered about 11 years. They were members of a health plan in greater New Haven, Connecticut.

From March 1998 to December 2008, the participants were interviewed monthly, and they also underwent home-based assessment every 18 months.

The researchers based their measure of recovery on participants being able to carry out four activities of daily living (ADLs): bathing, dressing, moving from a chair, and walking. Doing well in these activities is linked to lower use of healthcare and longevity.

They assessed age stereotypes from responses to the question, “when you think of old persons, what are the first 5 words or phrases that come to mind?”

They scored the responses from 1 for the most negative (eg “decrepit”), to 5 for the most positive (eg “spry”) and then averaged them.

The researchers found participants with a positive age stereotype were 44% more likely to fully recover from severe disability than those with a negative age stereotype.

Those with a positive view on aging also showed a significantly lower rate of decline in ability to perform their daily tasks.

The researchers suggest:

“Positive age stereotypes may promote recovery from disability through several pathways: limiting cardiovascular response to stress, improving physical balance, enhancing self-efficacy, and increasing engagement in healthy behaviors.”

“Further research is needed to determine whether interventions to promote positive age stereotypes could extend independent living in later life,” they urge.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD