Can Positive Thoughts Really Help You Live Longer?

So if people want to know, as they’re aging, how they can increase their health span or lifespan, it would be this three-pronged attack: focusing on the psychological, physiological and behavioral aspects. Is that fair?

Well, I would say that the book looks at age beliefs as an upstream factor. By changing an upstream factor, such as age beliefs, it could have a ripple effect and then impact things further down the stream. One could argue that some of the interventions are not always effective because they’re not taking into account the bigger structural, societal, cultural background to some of those factors. If we can strengthen the positive age beliefs, we will have this ripple effect going forward, that can positively impact some of those [behavioral, psychological, and physiological] mechanisms, which in turn could impact the health outcomes.

What you’re saying, and what your research has shown, is that we are all aging ourselves faster by living in a culture where we have a society-wide denigration of the elderly. We’re all aging ourselves through these portrayals in some ways?

Right. We also know that these can operate without our awareness. If we can increase our awareness, take control, and curate the messages that we are exposed to, and how we question them when we are exposed to them, that can be important. On a societal level, if we could find ways to reduce structural ageism, that would be the ideal.

To get into that idea a bit more, can we talk about Botox? How does the surge of interest in Botox intersect with some of these ideas on aging and cultural age beliefs?

There has been this surge in use of Botox, and different cosmetic procedures around reducing physical signs of aging. Unfortunately, there is an increasing number of advertisements that are focused on younger people. There’s a profit in creating fear around aging. That messaging unfortunately is promoting some of the negative age beliefs in society.

I’m wondering if that’s an example of structural ageism, or if it’s just that some people have a preference to not have wrinkles.

What I’ve focused on in the book is the role of advertising and the large profit that it’s made through advertising that has promoted negative age beliefs and a fear of aging. That is one of the places we could intervene on a structural level: to make advertising much more age positive and show much more heterogeneity in the types of advertising and images that are presented.

What are some common forms of structural ageism?

There’s terms that people don’t think too much about, like using the term “senior moment” to describe somebody who’s forgetful when that could happen at any age. But that’s a tendency to categorize forgetfulness as something that’s intrinsic to aging. There’s also something called elder speak, which is a tendency to speak to older people as if they’re babies or children. It’s really easy for people to switch into that language.

You suggest that another way to combat structural ageism here in America is to take lessons from other cultures that think of themselves less as individuals and more as part of a larger network. How does that change the way we might experience aging?

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