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So Funny I Forgot to Laugh

By Abigail Trafford
Wahington Post, July 18, 2000

"Did you hear about the miracle drug, Gingko Viagra?"

"No, what does it do?"

"It helps you remember what the #!?*! you're doing."

Ha, ha, ha. But once the laughter dies down, here's the bad news: Jokes like these are hazardous to your health. They increase your risk of heart disease, lower your performance on cognitive tests, accelerate memory loss and impede your will to live. They even make your handwriting worse.

Those are the findings from recent research into the health consequences of chronic exposure to negative stereotypes about aging. From advertisements to greeting cards, subtle and not-so-subtle messages create an image of the elderly as forgetful, slow, sexless, incompetent, debilitated, dependent, childlike, near death. In our youth-obsessed society, anti-aging stereotypes get ingrained by about age 6.

Trouble is, ageism can make you sick. A new study from Yale University shows just how a geezer-bashing culture can damage a person's mental and physical functioning. Researchers divided 54 men and women between the ages of 62 and 82 into two groups. With a technique called subliminal priming, words were flashed across a computer screen. Participants could perceive the flash but not identify the words. In one group, the messages were all negative, with words such as "Alzheimer's," "confused," "decline," "decrepit," "dementia," "forgets," "misplaces" and "senile." In the other group, the words were positive--"accomplished," "alert," "astute," "creative," "enlightened," "guidance," "insightful," "sage," "wise."

Those who got negative messages experienced significant increases in blood pressure that lasted for half an hour--a concerned researchers because high blood pressure increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. They also showed a greater response to stress, according to skin measurements.

"This suggests that the negative stereotyping people encounter in their daily lives can have an impact on physiological functioning," says Becca R. Levy, an assistant professor of epidemiology and public health at Yale University.

What's more, participants in the negative-message group performed worse on mathematical tests. And they had more difficulty on a verbal test in which they had to recount a stressful experience in the past five years.

Levy speculates that the constant bombardment of negative stereotypes in the culture gets internalized by older people, which lowers their expectations of performance. Doing badly on a test--appearing like a dim-witted old geezer--becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Negative messages are so endemic you scarcely notice them--as long as you're not "old." A grown daughter takes her mother for a medical checkup, and the doctor directs all conversation to the daughter, as though the mother were a child or not even there. A sixty-ish couple is out on the dance floor, cheek to cheek, and someone says: Isn't that cute! As though the couple were two toddlers up past their bedtime.

Greeting cards reinforce the dread of getting older. "Hang in there, Earth creature," says the friendly space alien on one card, "It's only a birthday--not the end of the solar system."

It doesn't have to be this way. The Yale study also shows that positive age stereotypes can protect people from stress.

Certainly other countries have more respect for older people. The Chinese, for example, have a much more positive attitude toward aging. In a 1994 study by Levy and her colleagues, older participants in China performed much better on memory tests than their American counterparts. In fact, the Chinese elderly scored just as high as the young Chinese participants.

This raises the possibility that the much-heralded memory decline associated with age in the absence of disease has more to do with negative stereotyping than with any biological determinism.

In a subsequent study of 90 men and women in New England, Levy found that, as expected, the group primed with negative messages did poorly on memory tests. The flip side is that those given positive messages did well. "Memory decline is not inevitable," concludes Levy. "In fact, the studies show that memory performance can be enhanced in old age."

You wouldn't know that from the jokes circulating about older people.

"Hey, I saw they were having these classes in memory improvement down at the senior center."

"I go every week. I'm learning these great tricks."

"Oh, yeah. Like what?"

"You know. What's the name of a flower that has a long stem, many thorns, is brightly colored and very fragrant?"

"A rose."

"That's it!" He turns to his wife and says: "Rose, what were some of those tricks they were teaching us in memory class?"

Very funny. But medically bogus. Forgetting the name of your wife is not a feature of aging, but a sign of disease. Do we really want to make fun of sick people?

Humor has always been an antidote to pain. But making the elderly the butt of jokes is bad medicine.

Not so long ago people used to laugh at racial and gender jokes. But not anymore--not in public anyway. "It's shocking that we are permitting a level of negative humor with the elderly that disappeared at the racial and gender level two decades ago," says geriatrician Jesse Roth, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "We're allowing words to describe the elderly that would cause you to lose your job if they were associated with gender or race."

The problem is ageism. And that's no joke.

Abigail Trafford can be reached by e-mail at trafforda@washpost.com. Join her Tuesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com for a Health Talk discussion on ageism. Her guest will be Yale University's Becca R. Levy.



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