To Age Well, Change How You Feel About Aging

Aging well framed

Scientists are discovering something very peculiar about aging: How we feel about getting old matters. A lot.

In test after test, researchers are finding that if we think about getting older in terms of decline or disability, our health likely will suffer. If, on the other hand, we see aging in terms of opportunity and growth, our bodies respond in kind. Being grateful for our blessings, living the Word of Wisdom and having a positive attitude will keep us aging in a healthier way.

Research holds out the possibility for much healthier aging. But it also points to a very big obstacle: Negative stereotypes about aging are pervasive in America. Even many older adults embrace the idea that getting old is a bad thing-which means they’re doing potentially serious harm to their health without realizing it.

Psychologists and neuroscientists are identifying strategies that individuals can use to improve their mind-sets about aging, with benefits for their health and well-being.

Here are four ways people can better protect themselves from the potentially harmful effects of stereotypes about aging.1. Understand the myths vs. the facts

Experts say the first step in overcoming negative stereotypes about aging is simply to understand how they work and recognize just how debilitating the consequences can be.

Stereotypes in general-negative and positive-are entrenched in part because they help us take cognitive shortcuts. By offering a way to “automatically categorize people into social groups,” they allow us to “free up mental energy to” live our daily lives, says Michael North, an assistant professor of management and organizations at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “If we were to try to make sense of everything and everybody we encounter, we wouldn’t have enough attention left over to be functional human beings.”

2. Recognize stereotypes in everyday life

Once you’re aware of the power of stereotypes, it’s important to be aware of just how pervasive they are. Again, that isn’t to say that none of the messages are true. But we are bombarded by one view of aging without being aware of it, so paying attention is an important way to lessen the impact.

Studies show that negative stereotypes about aging-for example, that older people inevitably grow less productive and more depressed-are as pervasive as they are inaccurate.

Blaming everything on age can “reinforce negative stereotypes in ourselves” that equate aging with decline, says Mary Lee Hummert, a professor at the Gerontology Center at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan.

3. Substitute positive for negative stereotypes

But being aware of negative stereotypes isn’t enough. Research shows that negative stereotypes about aging have a much stronger influence over older adults than positive ones-so it’s important to learn to emphasize the good side of aging.

In recent years, researchers have begun identifying techniques people can use to interrupt negative thoughts about stereotyped groups as they arise-and substitute more positive thoughts.

4. Accept the aging process

All that said, it’s important not to go overboard and expect an entirely positive experience of aging. The key is to hold both positive and negative in balance and really understand and own the aging process.

On average, individuals ages 40 and older report feeling 20% younger than their actual ages-a tendency that can serve a useful psychological purpose.

“By distancing yourself from your age, you also distance yourself from negative age stereotypes,” says David Weiss, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York.

Recent studies point to other techniques we can employ to become more satisfied-or less dissatisfied-with our age.

Research by Prof. Weiss, for example, concludes that identifying with one’s generation, such as baby boomers’ being proud of the differences they made in the culture, is a way to “embrace a more positive conception of older age” and link people “to a positive social identity or legacy that will endure beyond their own lifetime.” In the research, Prof. Weiss and a co-author found that older people who thought about their generations reported better well-being.

Yet another solution: exercise. While the health benefits of physical activity are widely known, a 2012 study shows that exercise can also leave us feeling better about the aging process.

Anne Tergesen
Wall Street Journal