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What does ‘old’ bring to mind?

I have a query for you. Don’t think too much about it, just say whatever pops into your thinking.

Here’s the question: “What are the first five words that come to mind when you picture an old person?” In my version of this exercise, it’s OK to look in the mirror while you are answering it. If you elect to do that, smile.

That question is asked of students at Yale’s School of Public Health at the beginning of a course on health and aging. With this largely youthful group, less-than-positive words like “senility” or “decline” come up frequently.

The professor who teaches that course is Becca Levy, a well-regarded psychologist and epidemiologist. She uses that exercise to introduce the sobering reality of age bias and age-discrimination.

Levy takes the topic further in her new book “Breaking the Age Code,” where she vividly presents how negative feelings about growing older result in more than “hurt feelings and discriminatory behavior,” but, in fact, affect impact physical and cognitive health and reduce life expectancy.

Her 2002 longevity study went on for two decades and followed hundreds of residents older than 50 in a small Ohio town. It found that median survival rate was seven and a half years longer for those who had positive views about aging. Think about that when you look in the mirror.

Levy, who is a “young-old” 55 years of age, reports that her interest in this topic started years ago when she was in a grocery store with her grandmother. As reported in a recent New York Times article about her work, “a wooden crate with jagged metal corners had been left in the aisle,” and her grandmother, said to be a “lively septuagenarian,” fell over it, cutting her leg. When her grandmother suggested to the grocery owner he “should not leave crates about,” he responded with “old people fall all the time and maybe shouldn’t be walking around.”

Another author on aging issues, Mary Pipher writes similarly about toxic cultural stereotypes that devalue the aging person and depict aging as “burden-in-waiting.” She wags her literary finger and reminds the reader that, “Happiness is a skill and a choice. … We know how to create a good day.”

Being “old” should not mean “…useless, unhappy and in the way.” But public bias is an unrelenting challenge. When I was “young-old,” I was drawn toward travel and worldly adventures. As a woman in my 70s, I still am, but I have the same feelings of pleasure sitting meditatively by a fireplace in the early morning with coffee nearby and newspaper in hand. Pipher might call that “living in the moment with all its lovely possibilities.”

A few years ago, I sat next to an attractive quite-elderly woman at a dinner party and asked her to give me five descriptors. She answered with unanimously positive responses saying, “I enjoy old people, even more so as I get to be one.”

Living in the moment with all its lovely possibilities.

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and author of “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at sharjohn99@gmail.com.