Taking age stereotypes to heart

People who hold negative attitudes toward the elderly face an increased risk of heart-related ailments later in life

Heart-felt perils await people who hold disapproving attitudes about the elderly, a new study suggests.

Young and middle-aged adults who endorse negative stereotypes about older people display high rates of strokes, heart attacks and other serious heart problems later in life, compared with aging peers who view the elderly in generally positive ways, say Yale University psychologist Becca Levy and her colleagues.

“We found that age stereotypes, which tend to be acquired in childhood or young adulthood and carried over into old age, seem to have far-reaching effects on cardiovascular health,” Levy says.

Her team describes evidence for a connection between attitudes toward aging and eventual heart health in a paper published online February 13 and set to appear in Psychological Science. Reasons for this association remain unclear. In earlier studies, Levy found that elderly volunteers who reported negative stereotypes about old people were more likely to display heightened physiological responses to stress and to report unhealthy habits, such as cigarette smoking.

Levy’s new report “is the latest in a series of well-conducted studies by various scientists that demonstrate that individual psychological differences assessed early in life predict various health and longevity outcomes many years later,” remarks psychologist Howard Friedman of the University of California, Riverside.

Further work should examine whether psychological traits already linked to physical health as people age, such as conscientiousness, influence attitudes toward the elderly, Friedman says. It’s an open question whether an association also exists between negative age-stereotypes and non-heart-related illnesses, or dying at an unusually early age, he adds.

Levy’s team studied 386 people, ages 18 to 49, who were participating in a larger, long-term study of aging. In 1968, these volunteers — none of whom had experienced any heart ailments — completed a questionnaire that measured the extent to which they agreed with 16 negative age-stereotypes. These stereotypes included beliefs that elderly people are “feeble” and “helpless.”

Thirty years later, 25 percent of those reporting negative age-stereotypes had suffered a heart ailment or a stroke, compared with 13 percent of those who rejected the age stereotypes. Heart-related problems commonly occurred about 11 years after participants entered the study.

To get a better handle on those whose heart-related problems did not show up for decades, Levy and her coworkers winnowed their sample down to 225 individuals, ages 18 to 39 at the study’s start, who experienced an initial heart ailment or stroke after their 60th birthdays. Those who had a poor regard for the elderly were much more likely to have heart-related problems in their early 60s, before those volunteers who viewed old age positively.

These findings held after the researchers accounted for other factors that can influence heart disease, including blood pressure, family health history, depression, education, sex, marital status, total cholesterol level and cigarette use.

Absent any detailed understanding of the ways in which age stereotypes may ultimately affect heart health, it’s too early to recommend any preventive programs aimed at altering negative attitudes toward the elderly, Friedman cautions. Possible mechanisms to explain why age stereotypes affect heart health include temperament, behavior and physiological traits.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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