“You’re only as old as you feel.” Sophia Petrillo
If you forget something, do you automatically assume it’s because of your age, or do you believe you forgot for another reason, such as being distracted? How you answer that question may have a profound impact on your overall health.
In our first article, we briefly explored the attitudes our culture has toward older adults and aging. In this article, we will explore how personal attitudes about aging affect the health of older adults.
As the saying goes, attitude is everything, and this is especially true for older adults and their outlook on the aging process. Nearly everyone in our culture has been socially conditioned from an early age to have negative attitudes toward aging, holding to inaccurate stereotypes even as they become older themselves. This can lead to self-stereotyping, where older adults apply these negative stereotypes to themselves.
Self-stereotypes about aging can, in turn, become self-fulfilling prophecies. Someone who believes that older adults are naturally depressed may find themselves fighting depression as they age. There is a strong correlation between negative attitudes about aging and physical and cognitive decline. Studies have shown that older adults who were exposed to negative stereotypes about aging suffered significantly greater cardiovascular stress and had worse outcomes in areas such as memory, motor control, and even the will to live than those who were exposed to positive stereotypes about aging.1
These positive stereotypes about aging and a positive attitude can be very beneficial. Individuals who had positive perceptions and expectations about aging were less frail and reported better mental health than those who didn’t. In fact, positive attitudes about aging not only can prevent a decline in cognitive ability, they can actually improve it.
Everyone ages, and the attitudes we carry with us about aging will affect our physical and mental health throughout our lives, especially when we are older. As we stated in the last article, being older does not mean that your life is over, or that you no longer have any useful contributions to make to your family or society. But you need to believe this for yourself.
If you find it difficult to combat self-stereotypes and your own negative attitudes toward aging, there are things you can do to help get over these hurdles.
• Get out into nature. A recent study from the Universities of Minnesota and British Columbia shows that spending time in nature is important for an older adult’s sense of well-being, helping them age in a more positive and healthy manner. The study found that older adults use nature to remain physically active, mentally healthy, and socially connected with friends and family, all of which can help offset illness, disability, and a sense of isolation.2
• Talk to someone. If you want to change your attitude, but find it hard to alter a lifetime of negative thinking patterns, it might be helpful to talk to someone about your struggle. This could be an understanding friend, your doctor, a clergy member, or even a counselor. You’re not alone.
•Choose positive. We live in a culture that bombards us with negative messages about ourselves and our world. Is most of what you watch or read negative? Try to balance out or replace it with something positive. One quick suggestion: Good News Network. https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/
• Be grateful. It’s much easier to focus on what’s wrong in our lives rather than what’s right, but that only leads to further negative thinking. Try to find one thing every day to be truly thankful for, even if it’s something as simple as the beauty of a flower or the delicious taste of your coffee. The more your practice gratitude, the more positive your outlook on life will be.
It isn’t easy growing older. Age often comes with challenges, and some of them can be very difficult. How we face those challenges will have a big impact on how old we feel, which will ultimately affect our overall health. Focus on staying positive, and don’t let anyone hold you back as you explore this wonderful time in your life.
Beckie J. Pettis is a Washington attorney with the firm Phelan Webber Pettis P.S. The firm focuses on estate planning, with a special focus on planning for the 2nd half of life. The firm also assists with trust administration, Washington probate, guardianship, special needs planning, and Medicaid planning.
1. Levy, B., Mind Matters: Cognitive and Physical Effects of Aging Self-Stereotypes, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/58.4.P
2. Finlay, J. et al, Therapeutic landscapes and wellbeing in later life: Impacts of blue and green spaces for older adults, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.healthplace.2015.05.001