A new nationally representative study of older military veterans finds that poor mental health is linked to negative age stereotypes, and those who view getting old as positive appear to have a lower risk of experiencing post-traumatic stress, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. The researchers suggest if media, everyday conversations and marketing were to convey more positive views of aging, it could improve mental health.

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“Developing resistance to negative age stereotypes could provide older individuals with a path to greater mental health,” say the researchers.

The researchers, from the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, CT, report their findings in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

In their background information, lead author Becca R. Levy, associate professor and director of the School’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Division, and colleagues explain evidence shows that older ex-service men and women are at greater risk of developing psychiatric disorders than same-age people who have not served in the military. They are also at higher risk than younger veterans.

Yet, it is not clear what factors – if any – may protect older veterans from developing these disorders.

For their study they analyzed data on over 2,000 American ex-military personnel aged 55 and over from the National Health and Resilience in Veterans Study, a nationally representative survey of the 9 million or so older veterans. The survey collected a range of data, including measures of mental health, attitudes, and social activity.

They found that of the participants with the most positive attitude toward aging, only 2% had post-traumatic stress disorder compared with 19% of those with the most negative attitude. They also found similar differences for experiencing suicidal thoughts (5% compared with 30%) and anxiety (4% compared with 35%).

The researchers also found the same link between resistance to negative age stereotypes and lower rates of psychiatric conditions in non-combat veterans and say this suggests the same is likely to be true of older people in general.

The link persisted even after they adjusted for other possible influencing factors such as age, personality and physical health.

They conclude:

“These findings suggest that developing resistance to negative age stereotypes could provide older individuals with a path to greater mental health.”

Prof. Levy says she has found negative age stereotypes can generate stress in older people, and research shows that stress can raise the risk of psychiatric disorders later in life, so perhaps one explanation for their findings is that exposure to negative age stereotypes makes older people more susceptible to psychiatric disorders.

“These results suggest that reducing the negative age stereotypes that are present in media, marketing, and everyday conversations could have mental health benefits,” she adds.

The authors believe this is the first study to link attitude to age stereotypes to stress-related psychiatric conditions.

Funds from the United States Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, the National Institute on Aging, and the National Institute of Mental Health helped finance the study.

Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently learned how a new report by the World Health Organization estimates that every 40 seconds a person dies by suicide. The report, released just ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day on 10 September, calls for global action to prevent suicide.