An old adage is again proving true: What we think will happen, happens. Essentially, as we age, we become what we think we will become.
This is the thesis that Yale University professor of public health and psychology, Becca Levy, Ph.D., has been researching for more than 20 years. One study authored by Dr. Levy found that having positive perceptions about aging (e.g. wisdom, self-realization, satisfaction, generally being vital and robust) instead of negative perceptions (e.g. useless, helpless, devalued) is associated with a nearly eight-year increase in average lifespan.
Dr. Levy was interested in how perceptions those over 50 hold about growing older affect their longevity. She relied on longitudinal data from a group of 660 adults collected between 1975 and 1995 and mortality data obtained through 1998. At the beginning of the study, participants completed a survey designed to detect personally held stereotypes about aging. Statements like “things keep getting worse as I get older” and “as you get older, you get less useful” were answered positively or negatively.
Those participants with positive scores outlived those with negative scores. People with a positive bias were more likely to exercise, eat well, limit alcohol, be non-smokers and have had preventive health care. All these good characteristics are consistent with taking control of one’s life.
Another of Dr. Levy’s studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggests that seniors with positive age stereotypes are 44 percent more likely to fully recover from a severe disability. Being optimistic, diligent and having the will to live are important characteristics of folks whose prognosis improves, no matter how bad the diagnosis. Those who are overwhelmed, pessimistic, negative and expect the worst typically experience the outcome they anticipate.
Changing Our Perceptions of Aging
Every day, around 10,000 baby boomers turn 65. The Population Reference Bureau estimates that folks ages 65 and older will make up about 20 percent of the U.S. population by 2029, up from almost 14 percent in 2012. There is great potential in keeping this older group engaged, productive and contributing to our overall quality of life.
When we think of old age, we tend to envision a slowdown or a person napping in a rocking chair. The fallacy of judging another person’s state of mind, actions or behaviors based on our own experiences, state of mind, actions or behaviors propagates widespread misconceptions about aging.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no typical “older personality.” Our basic personality is formed probably before six months of age but is modifiable. Those are two underlying concepts to keep in mind as we examine the following common misconceptions about aging as outlined by Donald E. Riesenberg, M.D., in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Common Myths About Aging
- Older people aren’t interested in the outside world.
The over-65 age group uses the Internet a lot. Far from being passive TV watchers, more than 100,000 individuals over age 50 participate in the non-profit Road Scholar experiential learning program each year to better understand other cultures around the world. Staying involved academically has also been a focus of many colleges and universities that have designed ongoing education programs for older residents or for the aging adult who wants to learn while on vacation. And many people, either by choice or necessity, stay involved in the workforce well beyond the typical retirement age.
- Older people don’t want or need close relationships.
We are social creatures. Families, tribes, teams and whole organizations have a better chance of survival and actually thriving when they are socially connected. The need for meaningful relationships does not diminish with age. However, there may be fewer people to relate to as we get older, and there may be physical and mental barriers that arise with age. Maintaining social relationships allows older adults to reap numerous rewards—intellectual challenges, maintaining information processing skills, feedback and just plain sharing of feelings.
- Older people contribute little to society.
With years of personal skills and professional expertise, older adults are highly valued employees, colleagues and volunteers. Senior Corps has more than 200,000 volunteers age 55 and older who contribute to their communities by tutoring, helping small businesses, assisting in placing foster children, providing fellow seniors who are homebound with companionship and help with daily tasks, and participating in other valuable endeavors. Older workers have a strong work ethic and are great mentors and models for younger generations.
- As you age, you get more set in your ways.
Older people tend to have high levels of mental resilience. The older generation’s ability to accept and rebound from adversity has been demonstrated many times. For instance, Outward Bound was founded when the owner of a British merchant shipping line noted that the survival rates among older sailors during World War II were much higher than those of younger sailors. The intergenerational program strove to pass on skills that seasoned sailors possessed, such as self-confidence, self-sufficiency, selflessness and a general attitude of toughness, to younger generations of seamen.
- Mental and physical deterioration are inevitable in old age.
There is a certain amount of loss of function as we age, but much can be done to prevent (or at least slow down) the physical and mental aging processes. Stem cells lose some of their potential and other cells weaken, but healthful habits hinder the process. Weightlifting helps retain muscle and bone integrity. Aerobic exercise and diet lessen the chances for physical and mental deterioration. Exercising the brain and continuously learning help to fight cognitive decline. Too much sedentary time spent watching TV is detrimental at any age but is particularly unhealthy for older adults, who often see their generation stereotyped in programming as feeble, forgetful, cranky and confused. Remember, what you think will happen, happens.
- Older people are impoverished.
According to a Congressional Research Service report, “The poverty rate among Americans aged 65 and older has declined by almost 70 percent in the past five decades.” However, certain groups are still struggling financially. For example, the poverty rate among aged African Americans in 2017 was 19.3 percent and the poverty rate among the aged Hispanic population was 17 percent. Being on a fixed income as inflation takes its toll is a liability for older folks.
- Older people are not interested in sex or intimacy.
This myth has persisted largely due to sexual activity and sexual health among seniors being infrequently discussed and studied. A 2017 University of Michigan National Poll on Healthy Aging asked a national sample of adults ages 50 to 80 about their perspectives on sex and relationships. The results showed that nearly two in three respondents (65 percent) were interested in sex, and most (76 percent) agreed that sex is an important part of a romantic relationship at any age. Forty percent of respondents indicated that they were still sexually active.
Furthermore, studies have consistently found an association between positive sexual activity and overall well-being, even among seniors. Whether one causes the other is unclear, but the mutual benefit is real. While the frequency of sexual activity tends to decline with age, one such study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that sexual activity and feeling emotionally close to one’s partner during sexual activity were associated with greater enjoyment of life in both men and women age 50 and older.
- Older people can’t make good decisions about important issues.
Age brings wisdom. Cognitive skills are based on a lifetime of experience and education. Shared decision-making—whether about a medical choice, financial decision or anything else related to an older person—should involve that person as long as they are still competent. Participation by everyone will improve outcomes.
- Older adults lose their desire to live.
Older folks become more accepting of death when they have some sense of control over it. A comfortable and controlled environment is desired by most, regardless of age. Well people want to live and live well. No one who is mentally stable desires to shorten his or her life.
- Science has answered all our questions about aging.
We have so much more to learn and experience. According to the National Institute on Aging, people age 85 and older are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. As we live longer and better, we will face even more questions, prompting us to seek answers.
Mark Twain supposedly said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”
We mind and it does matter. Think positively and you can live longer and better.