Confidence that is supported by high self-esteem has long been touted as a vital component of living a happy life and having fulfilling interpersonal relationships. But a positive sense of self-worth may also stave off some of the negative effects of aging, according to two new studies.

"Improving self-esteem provides real health benefits in seniors says Sarah Liu, a doctoral candidate from Concordia University. Liu led a study that measured and compared self-esteem, stress, cortisol levels and depression symptoms in 147 participants (age 60 and over), for a period of four years.

By asking questions such as whether the participant felt worthless, then factoring in other potentially influential elements (e.g., marital status, economic situation), Liu and her colleagues found that lower self-esteem led to increased cortisol levels in older men and women, leading them to conclude that high self-esteem could possibly provide elders with a barrier against the negative health effects of high amounts of cortisol.

The good and bad effects of cortisol

The purpose of cortisol, a hormone naturally released when an individual is stressed, is to help the body use up stored energy reserves by increasing metabolism of fat, protein and carbohydrates. This process primes the body and mind for survival via the fight or flight response. Cortisol secretion is a normal response to physical and psychological stress, but when too much of the chemical remains in a person's blood stream for too long, it can have dangerous health consequences in the form of raised blood sugar levels, inhibited bone growth, decreased immune function and memory issues.

Browse Our Free Senior Care Guides

Strategies for boosting a senior‘s self-esteem

The link between confidence and cortisol was especially robust in those adults who had experienced depression or high levels of stress in the past. "Because self-esteem is associated with psychological wellbeing and physical health, raising self-esteem would be an ideal way to help prevent health problems later in life," says Liu.

The problem with this theory?

Past research indicates that, after a lifetime peak that occurs somewhere around age 60, the typical individual experiences a precipitous self-esteem drop—likely due to major life changes such as becoming an empty-nester, retirement and the deaths of close friends and family members.

Still, there are a few ways older individuals can cultivate healthier levels of self-esteem:

  1. Seek out social connection: Regardless of age, individuals who have supportive, loving relationships with friends and family consistently report higher self-esteem and overall happiness.
  2. Promote feelings of independence: One possible cause for self-esteem dips in aging adults is the loss of independence due to physical and cognitive decline. This is played out in the conflicts created by conversations of whether an elderly loved one should still be driving, or if they can still safely live on their own.
  3. Cope with life changes by finding support: Human beings are social creatures by nature, and we connect with each other by telling stories and sharing experiences. Communities and groups aimed at supporting members through various life transitions—from becoming an empty-nester to dealing with a loved one's death—are good resources for handling these events in a healthy way.

Squashing stereotypes for better health

A second study, from the Yale School of Public Health, found that encountering positive messages about aging—as opposed to the stereotypical negative ones about being "over the hill"—can enhance the mental and physical well-being of older individuals, enabling them to maintain their independence for longer.

Reversing ingrained stereotypes about aging—even a little bit—can be a tricky endeavor, as lead researcher Becca Levy, associate professor and director of the Social and Behavioral Science Division at Yale, and her team found out.

"The challenge we had in this study was to enable the participants to overcome the negative age stereotypes which they acquire from society," Levy says in a Yale press release.

Previous studies led by Levy have shown how negative age stereotypes can have a damaging effect on older adults' physical health. This time, she wanted to see if the process worked in reverse.

To help older adults overcome negative thought patterns about their age, scientists divided 100 individuals whose average age was 81 years old up into different groups. One group was instructed to write about aging adults who were able to maintain lively, active lifestyles. Another group was placed in front of a computer screen that periodically flashed positive words such as "creative" and "spry" at speeds that were slow enough for participants' eyes to recognize them, but too fast for their brains to fully process—a form of subliminal messaging.

The hope was that, by altering participants' perceptions about aging in a subtle (yet positive) way by exposing them to subliminal messaging on the computer screens, the older adults would feel better about themselves and be able to more effectively perform everyday activities.

The researchers were not disappointed. By the end of a three week period, people in the subliminal messaging group had better balance and walking abilities, and could sit down and stand up from a chair more easily, while the older adults who wrote essays did not experience any enhanced mobility.

Help for an aging America

Of course, unraveling negative stereotypes about aging or increasing an older adult's confidence won't work miracles for the millions who are struggling with serious illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and dementia. However, both studies demonstrate the benefits that can be gained by taking a positive approach to the aging process.

Higher self-esteem levels not only help older adults, but their families as well. For instance, if your spouse is steadier on their feet, he or she will be less likely to fall—the number one cause of injurious death for older Americans. If your mom can get in and out of a chair on her own, she is likely going to be able to age-in-place longer.

The best part about these findings is that all of us can help foster an environment of esteem and kindness towards the elders in our community. Treating aging adults with respect and valuing their contributions to society is something that can provide countless benefits to members of all generations.