Former Extension Educator, Family Life
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Tuesday, June 6, 2017
How you feel about aging and your age can actually affect your overall well-being and health. Negative stereotypes in our media and our peers us also can affect how we feel about ourselves. However there is hope; we can turn around our negative thinking, reframe our views and, in turn, improve our health.
Research over the past twenty years has shown repeatedly that having a negative view about aging can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When asked what age you feel, hopefully you can answer younger than your chronological age. The age that you feel is your subjective age.
Subjective age can be determined based on many factors. According to research from the Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) Institute on Aging, as we age, the age we feel averages ten years younger than our actual age if we are aging well. Those in their 70s and 80s have even reported feeling up to twenty years younger.
When looking at those who report feeling their actual age, or older, versus those who report feeling ten to twenty years younger, there were some common trends. Adults who feel younger:
- Are healthier
- Report fewer chronic health conditions
- Have fewer risk factors for future diseases
- Take less medications
- Have more energy and get more hours of sleep per week
- Have more education
- Have control of their financial situation and can meet their needs
- Are more socially active
- Attend religious services
- Are in contact with friends on a weekly basis
- Report feeling like they have contributed positively to others and have purpose
- Have a good support system in their families and friends
Why does how you feel about aging matter, you may wonder? It matters a lot, according to research! If we focus on aging in terms of loss, weakening and frailty, then our health will likely deteriorate. In comparison, our overall health responds well if we age thinking in terms of growth and possibilities.
How do we shape our mindset or improve upon our current thinking? One way is to focus on the positive. Seek both positive people and positive messages. It is often said that we are influenced the most by the five people with whom we spend the most time. Are you surrounded by positive people who support you or those with a more negative view on life? Another way to shape our mindset is to think about improving and maintaining current abilities, compared to focusing on losses or what may happen.
The media is full of ageist advertisements and negative stereotypes, but if we understand the myths versus the facts, we can overpower and stop the potentially harmful effects of aging stereotypes. Research has shown that even when evening out the health, education and socioeconomic status of study participants, those who have a negative outlook have greater health declines than those with a positive outlook. Some specific health declines include higher rates of cardiac issues, poorer memories and reduced rates of recovery following an illness or surgery. People with negative outlooks also are less likely to take care of their health in ways of diet, exercise and following doctors' prescriptions of medication or therapy. On average, those with negative views die seven and a half years earlier than their positive counterparts.
When looking at stereotypes and myth versus fact, have you ever said, "I just had a senior moment? " That is an ageist statement whether you are 25, 55 or 85 and saying it. Most people say that when they have had a lapse in thought. People have memory lapses across the lifespan. However, when a teenager forgets something they do not worry about it nor call it anything, but they know they forgot something. It is not until we get more mature that we start to be concerned. In reality, memory can be enhanced as we age. Strength may decline and our senses may get worse over time, but memory loss is not inevitable. How quickly we recall may slow down, and our reaction times can slow as well. That all being said, as we age certain types of intelligence, relationships and our overall sense of well-being can improve. Older workers actually make fewer errors than their younger colleagues.
Take note of your own thoughts about growing older and of older people. Do not blame changes of ability or health necessarily on aging; this reinforces negative stereotypes in ourselves. We may misplace our keys simply because we were not paying attention to where we last placed them. Alternatively, if we cannot find our car in a parking lot, it is likely because we were thinking about something else and were not mindful on where we were parking. We do not develop diabetes because we get older; we probably developed it due to diet choices, lack of exercise or genetics.
Embrace a positive view on aging. To age well, we all must think about our diet choices, getting in the recommended weekly exercise and staying engaged socially. These can all affect our health, how we feel and our attitudes about aging.