Feeling Spry? Your Health May Benefit

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Whether older people describe their own age group as "spry" or "decrepit" may affect their chances of recovering from a disability, a new study finds.

Those who held positive stereotypes about older people were 44 percent more likely to fully recover from a severe disability than those with negative stereotypes, the study of people over age 70 showed.

"In our culture, the negative age stereotypes tend to predominate," said study researcher Becca Levy, associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University. "Questioning those… and bolstering the positive ones could potentially help people when they experience a disability," she said.

The researchers looked at about 600 older people who had no disabilities at the study's start, but who experienced a health condition or injury that kept them from their daily activities for at least a month at some point over the nearly 11-year study. The researchers tracked how well participants recovered from their disabilities.

Participants were asked at the outset to list the first five words that came to mind when they thought of old people. For example, some described older people as wise, while others used the word senile, Levy said.

Not only were those who held positive stereotypes more likely to recover from severe disabilities, they were also 15 percent more likely to fully recover from a mild disability, compared with those who held negative stereotypes, according to the study.

While the reason for the link is not clear, studies have shown that older adults who hold positive stereotypes "have a better buffer against outside stressors," Levy said. It could also be that those who hold positive ideas about older people are more likely to eat healthful food, take their medicine and exercise, she said.

Research suggests that the stereotypes that people hold can be changed. "It's a skill and can be improved," Levy said.

People who hold a negative view of older people and want to change those ideas should develop an awareness of the negative views presented on television and in the media. "They should question those images," she said, and also look for positive older role models and positive images.

The findings are published today (Nov. 20) in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Pass it on: Older people who held positive views of themselves recovered from disabilities faster.

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Karen Rowan
Health Editor
Karen came to LiveScience in 2010, after writing for Discover and Popular Mechanics magazines, and working as a correspondent for the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. She holds an M.S. degree in science and medical journalism from Boston University, as well as an M.S. in cellular biology from Northeastern Illinois University. Prior to becoming a journalist, Karen taught science at Adlai E. Stevenson High School, in Lincolnshire, Ill. for eight years.