Negative stereotypes are hurtful to older people and may shorten their lives, according to psychologist Becca Levy, PhD, assistant professor of public health at Yale University.

In Levy's longitudinal study of 660 people 50 years and older, those with more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with negative self-perceptions of aging. The study first appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 83, No. 2) in 2002.  

On the other hand, people's positive beliefs about and attitudes toward the elderly appear to boost their mental health.

Levy has found that older adults exposed to positive stereotypes have significantly better memory and balance, whereas negative self-perceptions contributed to worse memory and feelings of worthlessness.  

"Age stereotypes are often internalized at a young age – long before they are even relevant to people," notes Levy, adding that even by the age of four, children are familiar with age stereotypes, which are reinforced over their lifetimes.  

Fuelling the problem is the media's portrayal of older adults and their underrepresentation amongst broadcasters, Levy says.

The age discrimination cases brought by Miriam O’Reilly and Selina Scott in the UK and, more recently, Sue Manteris in the US, show that ageism is unfortunately still prevalent in the media industry but that both employers and employees are becoming increasingly alive to the issues. 

Levy also suggested that the value that the media and society place on youth might explain the growing number of cosmetic surgeries among older adults.  Whether this trend is positive or negative in combating ageism is one of many areas within geropsychology that needs greater research, she says.