Give Your Attitude About Aging a Checkup
September is Healthy Aging Month. Most of us know that lifestyle choices affect how long we’ll live, as well as our health and independence in our later years. We know we should eat a nutritious diet, get plenty of exercise, take part in mentally stimulating activities, and keep up with our health care appointments. Yet experts say that this is only half the picture. How we feel about our aging is important, as well.
Our Attitude Toward Aging Matters
A 2022 study from Oregon State University found that optimism can reduce the harmful effects of stress on our physical and emotional health. “Better self-perceptions of aging are good for your health, regardless of how much stress you have, or how much stress you perceive you have,” said study author Dakota Witzel.
Witzel says improving our attitude about the aging process can reduce stress-related symptoms. “That doesn’t mean adults should dismiss real health concerns or plaster on a fake smile,” she said. “But they will see benefits if they consciously work to be more positive about aging. It’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
An older adult might be thinking, “It’d easy to be optimistic and have a good attitude about aging if I were in excellent health, but I’m living with some health challenges. What about me?” In fact, a June 2022 study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health confirmed that older adults who are optimistic live longer—and this holds true no matter a person’s race, ethnicity, diet, level of exercise, and even their physical and mental health.
Even seniors with health problems can be empowered by tackling those challenges—and looking at the upside of making necessary changes. For example, if it’s time for professional in-home care, the senior could focus on the many ways these services enhance independence—how much more they will be able to do, without having to rely on family or friends as often. If it’s time to downsize by moving into a smaller place, the senior could consider the freedom that comes from taking care of fewer possessions.
Examine Your Attitude…and Society’s
Much of what we might dread about growing older comes not from our own experience, but from societal attitudes. “Research shows that we internalize messages we are exposed to over time,” says the Gerontological Society of America. “Stereotypes about aging become embedded in our patterns of thinking. This is a key part of ageism, which is discrimination against older people due to negative and inaccurate stereotypes and has a significant impact on health.”
The National Academy of Medicine placed the fight against ageism at the center of a June 2022 report on healthy longevity. “Structural and individual age discrimination is a barrier to healthy longevity and productive engagement in society,” the report said. “Governments should develop evidence-based, multipronged strategies for reducing ageism and age discrimination, including intergenerational and cross-sector collaboration, public information campaigns, and legal protections against age discrimination.”
Ageism has been called the last socially acceptable prejudice. And after a lifetime of living in a climate of ageism, most older adults could benefit by consciously examining their own attitudes. If you are a senior, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I laugh at jokes about older people that are based on stereotypes?
- Do I make self-deprecating jokes at my own expense?
- Do I sometimes automatically assume I can’t do something because “older people can’t, or won’t?”
- Do I decide not to do something, wear something, or go somewhere because “it’s not age-appropriate?”
As you’re examining your assumptions, start a conversation with others. Invite friends to watch an age-positive movie. Start a book group focusing on age-related titles. And call out ageist attitudes where you notice them. Many people who would never make a racist, sexist or homophobic remark might make a “geezer” joke—likely having never examined their own bias.
It’s certainly time to examine that “grouchy old man” stereotype. An April 2022 study from Claremont College emphasized that negativity is not the baseline emotional state for older adults. Neuroeconomist Dr. Paul J. Zak found that as we age, most of us grow more satisfied with life and care more about others—and one reason may be found in our brain chemicals! “People whose brains release more of the neurochemical oxytocin are kinder to others and are more satisfied with their lives,” Dr. Zak’s team reported, adding, “Oxytocin release increases with age, showing why, on average, people are more caring as they get older.”
Fighting Ageism Promotes Healthy Aging at Every Stage of Life
Coming full circle, one way to care for others is to take up the anti-ageist cause. When older adults educate younger folks about ageism, they’re doing them a favor! Yale University School of Public Health epidemiologist Becca Levy, whose work has been featured in the Right at Home blog from time to time and most recently in GQ, the New York Times and Psychology Today, has conducted numerous studies showing that young people with a negative attitude about aging are less likely to be healthy and happy during their own later years. They’re more likely to suffer from depression and loneliness, and less likely to eat well, exercise and—no surprise—feel optimism.
Our older years are a time for meeting challenges, but also for reflection, for thinking about the meaning of life, and how we can give back. When older adults model a good attitude about aging, it can raise the consciousness of younger people, who benefit as well. Fighting ageism is an intergenerational win-win!
How Right at Home Can Help
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