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Aging

Why It's Time to Start Thinking More Positively About Aging

"You can become the person you always should have been."

Key points

  • A well-established research finding shows that positive beliefs about aging can promote longevity.
  • A new investigation breaks down these beliefs, showing how a gain-oriented mentality is what really counts.
  • Rather than thinking about what you're losing as you get older, you'll be healthier if you orient yourself to the gains.
Pexels/Pixabay
Source: Pexels/Pixabay

If you agree with David Bowie that "Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been," then research shows that you're already on your way to a longer and healthier life. Along similar lines, the poet William Wordsworth noted that "The wiser mind mourns less for what age takes away than what it leaves behind." Both of these sentiments, centuries apart, express an optimistic view about the aging process.

Such inspirational quotes, sadly, don't jive with the prevalent negative views in contemporary Western society about getting older. Ageism, or negative stereotypes about people based on age, can apply to any generation. There’s ageism against the young (“Millennials”) that can be just as much of a threat to well-being to someone of that generation as ageism can be against the old. The difference, however, is that ageism directed toward the old carries a much broader set of negative connotations, ranging from cognitive limitations (“senility” or “dementia”) to those involving personality (“grouchy” or “cantankerous”).

You undoubtedly have encountered some of these slurs directed against you as you’ve reached your 40s, 50s, or beyond. Perhaps there’s a new piece of technology or app that’s giving you trouble because its directions are vague or hard to follow. When you ask a tech person for help, you’re treated as if you're incompetent. It’s irritating enough, but then maybe you start to wonder if, in fact, you are beginning to lose your edge.

Stereotypes About Aging

In a new paper by University Medicine Greifswald’s Susanne Wurm and Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research’s Sarah Schäfer (2022), a combination of what’s called “Stereotype Embodiment Theory” (Levy, 2009) and “Social Identity Theory” (Tajfel & Turner, 2010) may explain this internalization of a negative stereotype about aging into your sense of who you are. The slip into a negative social identity based on age may occur in a series of steps or “multiple thresholds" (Whitbourne, 1996). The tech incident serves as one small step across that threshold, but as you get older, there will be more that lead you to start rethinking yourself on the basis of age.

Your views about aging don’t have to be bad, though. As Wurm and Schäfer point out, you have a choice between thinking about getting older in terms of gains or losses, as expressed in the Bowie and Wordsworth quotes. What if those thresholds bring you to a realization that you’re improving, like a fine wine? Furthermore, as the German authors note, it’s also possible for you to think of your age in terms other than chronological—in what is called “subjective age," or how old you feel. Throwing aside the calendar may seem like an impossibility, but, as you'll see shortly, there's a simple thought experiment that can show how it's done.

The somewhat amazing idea that you could live longer just by thinking positively about yourself isn’t just a fantasy. Extensive research backs up this possibility, and although entirely correlational in nature (by default), the researchers investigating the effect of positive views of aging on mortality control for a wide range of potential contributing factors.

Do You Think About Aging in Terms of Gains or Losses?

Noting that all of this previous research supports the value of positive views about aging and longevity, the German investigators decided that there is actually more to the story. Focusing on positive age-related changes is great, but it’s unrealistic to view aging as an entirely happy proposition. Indeed, consistent with the multiple threshold model, there are losses that occur in various functions as people get older, and it would be foolish to deny that these exist. Borrowing from Wordsworth, the question is whether you "mourn" what you lose or celebrate what you gain.

The refinement in dividing age-related changes into gains and losses is an important one, Wurm and Schäfer maintain, if researchers are to get an accurate estimate of the effect of the combination of subjective age and attitudes toward aging on longevity. Based on this distinction, the authors took advantage of a large longitudinal (follow-up) data set first obtained in 1996 on over 2,400 community-residing Germans ranging from 40 to 85 years old, and followed over a subsequent 23-year period. During this time, the research team had access to death records, allowing them to track survival in relation to the original measures of age-related gains and losses (“Subjective Perceptions of Aging,” or “SPA”) along with subjective age.

The measures were very simple ones that you can also ask yourself, such as:

Subjective age: How old do you feel?

Self-perceptions of aging (SPA):

  • Gains: Aging means to me that I can still learn new things.
  • Losses: For me, getting older means that I am less healthy.

To control for possible relationships with other mortality-related factors, the authors used measures of physical illness, self-rated health, loneliness, life satisfaction, hope, and positive/negative affect or mood. The authors also took chronological age into account. By ruling these factors out, the authors reasoned that any remaining effects of SPA and subjective age and mortality could come into heightened focus.

Turning now to the results, over the course of the study there were 871 confirmed deaths in the sample. With all the statistical controls in place, those who survived were those who viewed aging from a gain instead of a loss perspective. Contrary to prediction, subjective age played no explanatory role. In other words, thinking of yourself as younger will have less of an effect on the length of your life than holding the view not just that aging is “not that bad,” but can actually be good.

As the authors concluded, “In concrete terms, for individuals who perceived aging as less associated with ongoing development, mortality was about twice as high after 20 years compared to individuals with more gain-related SPA." Even more impressively, age played no role in the prediction equation, meaning that the gain-related mentality applied as much to the middle-aged as to older individuals.

How to Get into the Gain Mentality

During those times when something about getting older is starting to bother you, the findings from the German study suggest that there can be value in making a few mental readjustments. Having trouble with that tech problem, and feel that you’ve lost your intellectual edge? Take comfort in the fact that there are some experiences you’ve had that only come with age. At this point in your life, you undoubtedly know how to operate hundreds, if not thousands, of gadgets. This is just another one that you will eventually master to add to your inventory of knowledge and skills.

How about your ability to answer a wide range of questions about everything from music albums from decades ago to geographical facts and figures? It takes years to acquire this knowledge, even if it might take you a little longer than you’d like to retrieve it when needed.

It’s still important to focus on what’s happening to your body in the loss department when something isn’t working right from a physical or health standpoint. However, looking at the big picture, letting yourself become demoralized by these changes can only make matters worse.

To sum up, adding a quote from Robert Burns, it’s possible that in old age, "the best is yet to be.” Thinking positively can be one important way of ensuring that your later years fulfill this promise.

LinkedIn image: IndianFaces/Shutterstock. Facebook image: Nestor Rizhniak/Shutterstock.

References

Wurm, S., & Schäfer, S. K. (2022). Gain- but not loss-related self-perceptions of aging predict mortality over a period of 23 years: A multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 123(3), 636–653. https://doi/10.1037/pspp0000412

Levy, B. (2009). Stereotype embodiment: A psychosocial approach to aging. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(6), 332–336. https:// doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01662.x

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (2010). An integrative theory of intergroup

conflict. In T. Postmes & N. R. Branscombe (Eds.), Rediscovering social identity (pp. 173–190). Psychology Press.

Whitbourne, S. K. (1996). Psychosocial perspectives on emotions: The role of identity in the aging process. In C. Magai & S. H. McFadden (Eds.), Handbook of emotion, adult development, and aging. (pp. 83–98). Academic Press. https://doi.10.1016/B978-012464995-8/50006-6

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