Each fall, the students in the health and aging class at the Yale School of Public Health are asked to picture an old person and share the first five words that come to mind. She tells them not to think too much.

She writes on the board. These include admiring words such aswisdom andcreative, and roles such asgrandmother.

The term "ageism" was invented by Dr. Robert N. Butler, the founding director of the National Institute on Aging. It is similar to sexism andracism and describes the discrimination against older adults.

A photo of Dr. Levy and Dr. Butler is in her small office at Yale. She could be his heir.

In more than 140 published articles over 30 years, Dr. Levy has shown that ageism results in more than hurt feelings. It can take years off a person's life if it affects physical and cognitive health.

She has shown that negative feelings about old age can lead to bad outcomes in older people.

There is a card on the bulletin board in Dr. Levy's office that says "Ask Me About 7.5." Median survival was seven and a half years longer for those with the most positive beliefs about aging, compared with those with the most negative attitudes.

The chair of the gerontology department at Virginia Tech credits Dr. Levy with his work in the field.

Dr. Levy and her team measure attitudes about aging in a number of ways. They use the same five-word exercise she gives to her students. They use computer programs to flash negative or positive words about aging so quickly that participants absorb them. They have used small experimental samples of a few dozen people and tracked health records for thousands. Beyond reduced longevity, ageism is also associated with.

  • Cardiovascular events include heart failure, strokes and heart attacks. Dr. Levy said in an interview that they have been able to follow people for 40 years.

  • The function is physical. The 100 older people who were exposed to positive age stereotypes weekly for a month scored better on tests of strength and balance than the control groups did. Those who received positive exposure improved more than those who did not. Positive age beliefs of New Haven residents over 70 were more likely to recover from severe disability than negative age beliefs.

  • Alzheimer's is a disease. Some people in the Baltimore study donated their brains for autopsies. Those who held more negative age beliefs at younger ages had a sharper decline in the volume of the hippocampus. More of the brain plaques and tangles that are Alzheimer's are exhibited by them after their deaths.

The data from the national Health and Retirement Survey was used to calculate the risk of carrying the APOE4 gene. The people with the positive age beliefs had a low risk compared to the people without the gene.

The list continues. Older people who have a positive view of aging perform better on memory and hearing tests. They are less likely to develop a mental illness.

According to Dr. Levy and her colleagues, age discrimination, negative age stereotypes and negative self-perceptions of aging can lead to $63 billion in excess annual spending on common health conditions like cardiovascular and respiratory disease, diabetes and injuries.

Dr. Levy credits her focus on aging to an after-college job at a psychiatric hospital in suburban Boston, a graduate fellowship in Japan, and a crate in a Florida grocery store.

She enjoyed working in a unit for older patients at the hospital and wanted to understand the psychology of aging.

She was going to investigate why older people in Japan have the world's longest life spans. Centenarians were rock stars.

She visited her grandmother before she left for Japan. They were shopping together when grandma fell over a crate that had been left in the aisle.

The cut on her leg was superficial. The grocery owner responded that old people shouldn't be walking around because they fall all the time.

The message stayed with her, and it seemed to affect her behavior. Her grandmother asked Dr. Levy to take over chores that she normally did. The incident made Dr. Levy think about how cultural values and people's own ideas about age might affect them.

Through media portrayals and fairy tales, we absorb these stereotypes. Employers, health care organizations, housing policies, and institutions all have the same prejudice. Reversing that will require sweeping changes.

Damaging ideas about age can change. Using the same subliminal techniques that measure stereotypical attitudes, her team has been able to enhance a sense of competence and value among older people. Researchers in other countries have done the same thing.

You can't create beliefs, but you can make them.

Is a society capable of doing such a mission? How long could the benefits last? Is it possible that people would need regular boosters to associate aging with experience and possibilities instead of nervous jokes?

Dr. Levy and other scholars are continuing their research.

Even though toddlers have negative stereotypes about age, they are not set in stone. We can shift them.