Breaking the Age Code by Dr. Becca Levy: 2022 HarperCollins Publishers A book report…

Close your eyes and visualize an “older” person. Who do you see? What are the adjectives you would use to describe this senior member of our society?

Your answer may determine your longevity!  Author Dr. Becca Levy, a professor of Epidemiology and a professor of Psychology at Yale University has released “pathfinding studies [that]have changed the way we think about aging.”

What adjectives popped into your mind to describe an elder? Consider the response of a seventy-nine-year- old American: “Senile, slow, grumpy and stubborn.”  And an eighty-two- year-old woman from China: “Wise, reads to grandchildren, walks a lot and kind.”

Dr. Levy contends that: “These two clashing visions reflect the vast range of age beliefs that predominate in different cultures – beliefs that determine how we act toward older relatives, organize our living spaces, distribute health care, and form our communities. Ultimately these beliefs can also determine how older people think about themselves as well as how well they hear and remember, and how long they live.” (Note The author, when talking about an “older person” is referring to someone over the age of 50!)

In a framework she calls SET (stereotype embodiment theory), the author has confirmed with over 400 studies that there are four mechanisms involved in how age stereotypes affect our health. They:

  • are internalized from society starting in childhood and continuing throughout the life span.
  • operate without our awareness
  • increase in power as they become more self-relevant (as we become older)
  • impact health through Psychological, Behavioural and Biological pathways

Ageism (prejudice or discrimination on the grounds of a person’s age) is a reality that has seeped into North American culture. Tech industries, for instance, are purported to be interested in hiring only Under 30s, rejecting older applicants who have had years of experience and comprehensive resumes.

Paul Irving the Chair of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging shares that: “The miracle of longevity provides such incredible opportunity to individuals and the societies in which we live. Yet, today so much of that potential remains unrealized because we haven’t adequately addressed these challenges that hinder older populations from living their later lives in meaningful productive ways.”

What are two examples of this potential? Dr. Levy offers striking examples. John Basinger, who at the age of 60 memorized all of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It took him three days to perform this poem.  Sister Madonna Buder who at age 92 just completed her 350th triathlon. Age did not hold these two back.

Having a positive attitude toward aging can add 7.5 years onto a person’s life.  But in what way can we ensure that this goal is achieved in a society that favours the young?

  1. By exercising our ABCs, the health promoting age belief tools:

A          Awareness: Identifying where negative and positive images of aging are found in society

B          Blame: Understanding that health and memory problems can be the result, at least in part, of the negative age beliefs we acquire form society

C          Challenge: Taking action against ageism so that it is no longer harmful.

  1. By debunking False Age Stereotypes

When I was watching a segment of the Oscars recently, I heard a comment about Sally Field which caught my attention as a result of my having read this book. The commentator mentioned that 76- year-old Sally Field was assisted in mounting the steps to the stage. Anyone who has watched award shows such as this will note that most of the women who are wearing floor length gowns and impossibly high heels are offered a helping arm at the foot of the stage stairs. The assistance is not connected to a supposed physical challenge because of age.

I heard a conversation between a senior and a tech assistance in an Apple store recently.

“How can I be expected to understand this? I am 82!” To his credit the young man replied, “Of course you can.”

Or how about a common answer to “Great to see you. How are things?”

“Well, I’m alive, aren’t I?”

And how about forgetfulness? Adults of all ages will experience difficulty remembering a specific event or name. However, when that person is over 50, it is often labelled as a Senior Moment!

  1. By calling for an end to structural Ageism in: Medicine, Healthcare, Governmental Systems, Education, the Workplace, Antiaging and Advertisement Industries, Popular Culture, Media, Spatial Ageism, Science.

Discrimination and prejudice in all the above fields is obvious without having to dig too deeply. The sad reality is that ageism as not usually identified as discrimination. Thankfully there are now champions for the “aged” who are vocally calling for awareness and reform.

Breaking the Age Code is an enlightening and enjoyable read. It is peppered with information supported by research and is full of anecdotes about the negative and positive effects of attitude. This book gives hope to all of us who have passed the 50-year milestone. It also provides valuable tools to those who have societal influence and can ensure that everyone reaches their individual potential, which benefits not only oneself but society as a whole.

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