So Funny I
Forgot to Laugh
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
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
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
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,"
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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?"
"That's it!" He turns to his wife and says:
"Rose, what were some of those tricks they were teaching us in memory
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
The problem is ageism. And that's no joke.
Abigail Trafford can be reached by e-mail at email@example.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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