Re-Imagining Age: A Blessing, Not a Problem

How we view age predicts physical health and emotional well-being.

Posted Sep 05, 2018

Used with permission from BigStock
Source: Used with permission from BigStock

The earliest studies of late life occurred in hospitals with older people who were ill, which led to a misunderstanding of aging as a problem. Despite decades of research refuting this loss-skewed view of later life, negative stereotypes and fears of age persist and may have significant negative effects on physical health, cognitive functioning, and emotional well-being. Conversely, an optimistic view of aging may help improve health and well-being.

A 2016 (TILDA) report at Trinity College, Dublin, for example, stated that “If negative attitudes towards aging are carried throughout life they can have a detrimental, measurable effect on mental, physical, and cognitive health.” And Becca Levy and Martin Slade of Yale University (2002) found that a positive view of aging predicted life expectancy.

While aging well in an age-fearing environment can be a challenge, negative stereotypes can be resisted. There is ample evidence for a more heartening (and accurate) view of age, and many late-life trends – including the eight described below – provide support for a healthier and happier experience of growing old than limiting stereotypes portray.

Living Beyond Stereotypes

Most older people's experience of aging does not match ageist images, and we need not allow them to become self-fulfilling prophecies. In his cross-national study of centenarians, psychologist Mario Martinez found that the single greatest determinant of vital old age is “healthy defiance” of limiting cultural messages about aging. In The MindBody Code, he points out, “While Western cultures tend to conclude that value, potency, and activity decrease with age, centenarians do not buy into this proposition; they view their journey through life . . . [as increasing] their worthiness, complexity, and passion.”

Our years need not determine how we feel and act; in fact, chronological age is increasingly regarded as a fairly poor predictor, especially in later life. People age in widely different ways and at different rates and become less and less alike. There is not one path through later life; there is wide diversity – and freedom. As author and activist Ashton Applewhite writes in This Chair Rocks, “These [limiting] stereotypes are ours to reject or subvert, on the way to more compelling and accurate aspirational identities. . . . I claim my age at the same time as I challenge its primacy and its value as a signifier.”

Nurturing a More Optimistic View of Age

Numerous studies have demonstrated that optimism tends to increase in later life. The reasons for the link between aging and optimism are not fully understood, but regardless of the mechanism, a positive outlook – about aging in particular and about life in general – contributes to late life well-being. An optimistic attitude toward aging entails focusing on what is possible (now what?), rather than on what has been lost (oh, no!).

Researchers have found that a positive view of one’s own aging is associated with enhanced social networks (Menkin et al, 2016), improved cognitive functioning and physical health (Levy, 2003), and higher levels of subjective well-being (Steverink et al, 2001). Best of all, cognitive behavioral therapy, narrative psychology, and neuroscience demonstrate that we can change our mindset by becoming aware of undermining attitudes and beliefs, seeking evidence of a more positive (and accurate) “counter story,” and actively working to “sculpt” our brain in a more life-enhancing direction. Hanson and Mendius’s Buddha’s Brain and Mario Martinez’s MindBody Code contain a wealth of user-friendly techniques – derived from neuroscience and meditative practices - for “marinating” the brain in age-friendly and other positive imagery. 

 Used with the permission of photographer Jesse Holland (See artist contact information below)
Source: Used with the permission of photographer Jesse Holland (See artist contact information below)

Age as Ally

Age itself brings a number of trends that enhance our lives and offer support for a  heartening view of aging. For example, in later life we become freer from the influence of others’ opinions, especially when they fly in the face of our experience and what we “know in our bones.” We tend to develop greater selectivity about where to invest our time and energy, giving ourselves to relationships and involvements that are the most valuable and letting go of those that aren’t. And, moving at somewhat slower (and more human) pace, we recover the child-like capacity for savoring small moments.

Older adults are generally happier, less reactive under stress (emotional mastery), more accepting of adversity when it does come calling, and more skillful at navigating life’s inevitable losses and challenges (wisdom). And there is a tendency to grow beyond the ego or personal self and to experience a deeper sense of kinship and connection with other people and species (gerotranscendence). All of these gifts of age help increase contentment in later life and can serve as buffers against demeaning ageist stereotypes.

Contact information for Jesse Holland, photographer