This story is part of our annual Fit At Any Age series—a guide to the innovations and breakthroughs in aging to help you live a stronger, longer life.
IN GRADUATE SCHOOL at Harvard, Becca Levy visited Japan and wondered whether the reason people there had the longest lifespans in the world might have to do with their more positive beliefs about aging. They treat aging as something vital to enjoy, and even have a holiday whose name translates to Respect for the Aged Day. Americans, meanwhile, have a diet of TV shows and memes that link aging with uselessness, weakness, and decrepitude. Levy started wondering just how much your beliefs about aging matter in whether your life will be long and healthy.
As a psychology professor at the Yale School of Public Health, she started studying it. What she found surprised even her: People with the most positive perceptions of aging lived an average of seven and a half years longer than those who had more negative beliefs about it. For real: Those who thought about aging in terms of concepts like “vital” and “wise” outlived those who associated it with ideas like “decrepit” or “less useful.” This longevity advantage was found even after factoring in the effects of gender, socioeconomic status, age, loneliness, and baseline health.
Other studies of Levy’s found that people who had taken in more positive age beliefs from their cultures also performed better physically and mentally. “I think one of the hopeful messages of the research is that ageism can take a toll, but beliefs aren’t set in stone.” Her team has evidence that age beliefs can be changed. In fact, even ten minutes of exposure to positive or negative messaging can change how older people perform on memory tasks in a lab.
The biological link between your mind and life span may have to do with CRP—a biomarker for stress. People who die earlier tend to have high CRP levels; Levy’s research found that people with positive age beliefs tend to have lower levels.
In her book, Breaking the Age Code, she outlines a plan for changing your mind: Be aware of the positive and negative images you’re being fed, understand that your health is affected by them, and take action against these messages. You can even try something as simple as making a list of four older people you admire. Note positive qualities they have that you’d like to strengthen in yourself as you get older.
“Reducing negative age beliefs is relevant across the life span,” Levy says. These think we’re approaching this tipping point of an age liberation movement,” she adds. Now other types of discrimination are shut down in the workplace immediately, and it may not be long before ageism is in the same category. “Ideally there would be leadership from older people,” she says, “but the inclusion of younger allies would be beneficial for the movement and for their future aging.” Change your mind, change your life span—and maybe change the world, too.
The Hottest Longevity Hacks, Explained
There may someday be pills that stop the diseases that cause aging. Meanwhile, Peter Attia, M.D., author of Outlive: The Science & Art of Longevity, cuts to the chase on what’s getting the buzz when it comes to longevity potential right now.
• Exercise. “More than anything else, exercise has the greatest power to determine how you will live out the rest of your life,” he says. Not only does it reverse physical decline, it can slow or reverse cognitive decline as well.
• Rapamycin. An immunosuppressant primarily used to prevent organ rejections after transplantation, this drug—at a lower dose—may help your body get rid of oldest and weakest cells. “It’s the most promising geroprotective agent we have at this time,” Dr. Attia says.
• Metformin. Research on whether this diabetes drug can protect against aging has turned up enough varied evidence to suggest it might—there are just nuances that need to be pinned down. For instance, it might work differently in people of different ages or exercise habits. “I think there’s enough smoke there that we should see if there’s fire,” he says.
• Young blood transfusions. There is no evidence that infusions of young blood plasma can prevent aging in older people, but it’s an interesting idea that needs a lot more research. Big red flag: the amount of commercial activity around it already.
• Resveratrol. “Probably one of the biggest cons in the supplement industry,” Dr. Attia says. Despite all of the research, “only one experiment has ever suggested that resveratrol did anything,” he says.
A version of this story appeared in the April 2023 issue of Men’s Health.
Marty Munson, currently the health director of Men’s Health, has been a health editor at properties including Marie Claire, Prevention, Shape and RealAge. She’s also certified as a swim and triathlon coach.
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