It seems we’ve been writing a great deal recently about the power of words.

While each of our blogs has taken a slightly different approach to the topic, from humorous (chat checkouts) to serious, (the power of a positive attitude) at its core what we’ve really been exploring is the power of words to influence behaviour either positively or negatively. Today, we continue the topic by exploring the power of words in terms of their impact on how we feel about aging.

The World Health Organization

The World Health Organization has been examining issues related to perceptions of aging around the world. Specifically, it is expected in the coming months to “publish the results of a global investigation of ageism (discrimination toward the aged)…….that will address how to fight the prejudice.” It is expected further to address how ageist attitudes can affect the actual physical health and well-being of older citizens. While this is timely, in fact, research in this area has been ongoing since the early 1970s and much of it has been focussed on linguistics. Consistently, these studies have found that the power of words absolutely strongly impacts, either positively or negatively, our thoughts, feelings and attitudes towards aging.


Psychologist Becca Levy is one such person who has conducted various research on the topic. In 1996 she identified a series of words related to aging and then used those words to conduct an experiment. These included:

  • Negative Words such as –
    • Alzheimer’s, Dementia, Decrepit, Dependant, Confused, Senile, Incompetent.
  • Positive Words like –
    • Guidance, Wise, Sage, Alert, Accomplished and Enlightened.

Working with a group of 90 participants, aged 60-90, she found that subliminal exposure to negative words had a lasting (and negative) impact on the participants’ ability to perform on a memory test.* Conversely, participants who were subliminally exposed to positive words were able to improve their scores related to rate of recall. Her conclusions: A pessimist, she noted, would interpret these results to mean that memory decline is inevitable with old age while a more optimistic approach might conclude that memory performance can be enhanced in old age, with the right priming. In other words, if we are conditioned through language to assume we’re declining, we will. If however, we are encouraged by the power of positive words, there’s no telling what we can accomplish.

In 2015, together with Reuben Ng, Levy also conducted a linguistic analysis of the use of words associated with aging over the last 200 years. They found “the words describing older people became progressively more negative over time,” citing in part, that aging has come to be seen as a medical condition rather than as a natural consequence of living a long, healthy life. They described the impact of words as having a “pernicious” effect on the physical signs of aging. In fact, in 2002, Levy and her colleagues went on to publish “an analysis of data from the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement. Of 660 subjects over age 50 who had been followed for more than 20 years, those with the most negative attitude toward aging when the study began died at an average age that was 7.5 years younger than those with the most positive attitudes.” (1)

It would seem safe to conclude from this (and various other research in the field) that positive attitudes toward aging are at least in part related to positive language around aging. It also appears that globally, we need to do a much better job of understanding the power of words and their impact. We need to shift the narrative that has seen an increase in negative age-related language over the last 200 years and to complete that shift in 20 years not 200. For the benefit of all, it’s time to employ the use of positive language (in a perfect world this would apply to all of our conversations) when we are talking about those who are wise, mature, sage, accomplished and enlightened!

*the memory test was applied both pre and post-exposure

Written by Sheralyn Roman

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