Could Our Attitude About Aging Affect Our Health?

Related topics: Health & Wellness, Mental and Emotional Health, Senior Life

Good attitude promotes healthy aging in many ways.

Several years ago, University of Georgia College of Public Health researchers set out to determine the characteristics shared by centenarians—people who live to the age of 100. They discovered that when it comes to longevity, genes and quality healthcare count—but so does attitude. Said lead researcher Dr. Leonard Poon, "What is happening to you matters, but more importantly, it is your perception of what is happening to you that is really important for your individual health."

Though it's obvious that our health influences our attitude, many recent studies confirm that the opposite is also true. For example, Johns Hopkins researchers recently showed that a positive outlook on life lowers the risk of heart attack by one-third. Said study leader Lisa Yanek, "If you are by nature a cheerful person and look on the bright side of things, you are more likely to be protected from cardiac events. A happier temperament has an actual effect on disease, and you may be healthier as a result."

Some people are just naturally more positive than others. Through life, they handle a Little League loss, a toddler's tantrum, a bad day at the office and a challenging health diagnosis with the same upbeat resolve. But researchers say we can take steps to improve our outlook. They find that even small steps can have immediate benefits. In an interesting experiment, Ohio State University researchers gave a group of seniors a test that measured cognition. Half of the senior subjects received only instructions before taking the test. The other half were also given a thank you card and a pretty wrapped package of candy—and their test appeared with cheerful smiley suns in the background. The results? Those who had been provided with the modest mood boost performed better in tests of decision-making and working memory.

Yet ironically, just as we reach the age where we need to work harder to maintain good health, it can be harder to maintain a good attitude. The physical and mental changes of age, loss of loved ones, financial stress, the sometimes isolating effects of retirement and an empty nest … these can dampen our spirits. And gerontologists tell us that we face another daunting challenge: ageism, which is the word for negative attitudes about aging that we experience from other people, from the media, and even from ourselves if we have internalized the negativity over the years.

Ageism has an impact on …

Self-esteem. Baby boomer parents were known for tending to the self-esteem of their children—but what about the self-esteem of their parents and their own feelings of self-worth as they age? Concordia University researchers recently reported that seniors with lower self-esteem have higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone that raises the risk of a number of diseases. Says researcher Sara Liu, "Because self-esteem is associated with psychological well-being and physical health, raising self-esteem would be an ideal way to prevent health problems later on. Improving self-esteem provides real health benefits in seniors."

Disability. Studies also show that people who have a negative attitude about aging are at greater risk of disability. Reporting in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Yale School of Public Health researcher Becca Levy, Ph.D., said, "Positive age stereotypes may promote recovery from disability through several pathways: limiting cardiovascular response to stress, improving physical balance, enhancing self-efficacy, and increasing engagement in healthy behaviors." And here's a tip for younger people: in an earlier study, Levy found that young people who harbor negative stereotypes about seniors put themselves at risk of poor health in their later years—a self-fulfilling prophecy that is definitely to be avoided!

Brain health. University of Southern California Davis School of Gerontology's Sarah Barber said, "Of the many negative stereotypes that exist about older adults, the most common is that they are forgetful, senile and prone to so-called senior moments. Older adults should be careful not to buy into negative stereotypes about aging. Attributing every forgetful moment to getting older can actually worsen memory problems." Her research team reported, "When people are confronted with negative stereotypes about a group with which they identify, they tend to self-handicap and underperform compared to their potential. In doing so, they inadvertently confirm the negative stereotypes they were worried about in the first place."

Breaking the Cycle of Ageism

With the aging of the huge baby boom population, it's more important than ever to tackle this problem. But can the boomers overcome their own programming? Some studies show that while the boomers state they want to improve the way our culture views aging, they aren't exactly practicing what they preach when it comes to their own elders! Said Oregon State University researcher Michelle Barnhart, "Our society devalues old age in many ways, and this is particularly true in the United States, where individualism, self-reliance and independence are highly valued. Almost every stereotype we associate with being elderly is something negative, from being 'crochety' and unwilling to change, to being forgetful." Barnhart calls on boomers to break the cycle. She says, "Unless we change the way we view old age, the generation younger than the boomers will treat them the same way as soon as they show a few more wrinkles or seem a bit shaky on their feet."

What Can We Do to Bring About This Change?

The first step is to check our own attitudes about aging. How do we talk about seniors? About our own aging? About our elderly parents? When we make a joke about seniors—ourselves or in general—is it good-natured, or does it contain underlying negativity? No matter what our age, we can be harmed by stereotypes and by devaluing of people who are dealing with age-related physical and cognitive challenges.

The second step is to seek out positive images about aging, and to start a conversation about positive aging. Read a book, watch a documentary. Join a class or discussion group at your local senior center, senior living community, college or through your local area agency on aging. Get involved! Support legislation that preserves the dignity, well-being and independence of seniors, no matter what their health condition.

And don't be afraid to "call out" ageism. This can be very empowering! If you hear someone making an ageist statement, bring it up just as you would a racist comment. Sadly, old age is still fair game for derogatory jokes in our culture. Chances are the commenter hasn't even considered that their statements are discriminatory and hurtful! We can help younger people—and ourselves, if we are older—realize that growing older is not a joke. It is to be gratefully accepted and treasured with good care.

Source: IlluminAge Communication Partners; copyright 2014 IlluminAge.

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