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Thinking about Aging

What do you think of when you hear words like Alzheimer's, senile, decline, decrepit, and dementia? If you imagined an elderly person, unfortunately, you aren't alone. For many people, these words evoke negative stereotypes about aging. The problem is that these negative stereotypes may have some very real health consequences.

As you may already know, heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in people who are older than sixty-five. What's more, there's a growing body of evidence that emotional stress can contribute to cardiovascular disease. Apparently, the elevated heart rate and blood pressure that are part of the physiological response to stress can accelerate heart damage.

Anyway, a group of scientists conducted an experiment where one group of elderly people were subliminally exposed to negative words about aging like Alzheimer's and dementia while a second group was exposed to positive words like alert, enlightened, insightful, and wise. Then the participants were asked to do some mathematical and verbal tasks. Those individuals exposed to the negative messages not only did worse on the mental challenges, but they also got more stressed out and their blood pressure increased.

All this suggests that those individuals who believe aging is a bad thing not only have a harder time performing tasks than they would normally, but they may unknowingly also be making themselves sick at the same time. Even worse, given all the negative images we have of aging in this society, resisting these perceptions is hardly a trivial task. That's why it's so important to break these negative patterns and find more positive ways of thinking about aging and the elderly.

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