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Book Review: Breaking the Age Code: How Your Age Beliefs Determine How Long and Well You Live

March 28, 2024

Reviewed by Susan Healy

Book cover of Breaking the Age Code: How Your Age Beliefs Determine How Long and Well You LiveEven if you haven’t read “Breaking the Age Code: How Your Age Beliefs Determine How Long and Well You Live,” you may have heard of its author. With the publication of her book in 2023, Becca Levy, PhD, was celebrated in the popular press as the person who told us that we can add seven and a half years to our lives by rejecting negative cultural stereotypes that society attaches to aging.

Levy’s conclusion is supported by her research. In 2009, she reviewed a long term project that followed a population of healthy adults aged 18-49 and collected information about their health from 1968 to 2007. Of course, the medical literature is full of longitudinal studies, but one of the components of this this study made it unique. At the very beginning, the young participants’ ageist beliefs were rated using the “Attitudes Toward Older People Scale.”

The results supported Levy’s hypothesis that younger individuals who held more negative age stereotypes were significantly more likely to experience a cardiovascular event over the next 38 years, even after the model was adjusted for individual factors such as smoking, family history, and other health and lifestyle issues. In fact, those participants who had the most negative attitudes toward older people were significantly more likely to have their first cardiovascular incident at a younger age than participants with more positive attitudes. It turns out that to a great extent, our ageist attitude is our own worst enemy.

Although the book focuses on the health risks of internalizing negative age stereotypes, Levy also discusses the recently discovered super-ager gene, and the effects of adopting healthier habits. However, she concludes that a midlife change of attitude can add more years to one’s life than quitting smoking or adopting a healthy diet in middle age.

Levy’s book doesn’t stop there. Although some parts might read as if they have been lifted from a scientific treatise, she also introduces readers to remarkable people with positive outlooks who are enjoying active and productive lives well into their 90s and beyond. She describes historical, national and cultural differences in attitudes toward elders and explains how an intergenerational family’s close contact can lead to more positive age beliefs, even within a society that is generally toxic for seniors. And finally, she offers practical ways to work on developing a more positive attitude and make the years ahead of us more active, productive, and rewarding.

For more information about Dr. Levy’s findings, watch a video of her Q and A session with members of the Modern Elder Academy.