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Fear

Do You Have "FOGO?" Taming the Fear of Getting Old

Three truths about aging, and four ways to plan for a fulfilling older age.

Key points

  • Surveys show that FOGO, the fear of growing old, is common.
  • To reduce FOGO, it can be helpful to know three surprising research-based benefits of aging.
  • These four healthy actions can counter four common fears about aging.
Image by Geralt on Pixabay
Cross out FOGO!
Source: Image by Geralt on Pixabay

How common is the fear of getting old? So common that this fear even has its own acronym—FOGO, “Fear of Getting Old.” Although less catchy, the term “gerontophobia” is sometimes used to describe the same thing.

A 2014 survey of 2088 Americans age 18 and older, commissioned by the drug company Pfizer, found that 87 percent of participants had at least one fear about getting old. (I was surprised to find that 13 percent of those surveyed didn’t have any anxiety about getting old.) According to this survey, conducted online by Harris Poll, 23 percent of Americans worry about a decline in their physical ability, 15 percent worry about memory loss, 12 percent fear running out of money, and 12 percent are concerned about chronic illness. Only 10 percent say they fear dying, an astoundingly low percentage from my perspective.

Also in 2014, Pfizer commissioned a study to analyze how aging was being discussed on Twitter. The results: “Social research study found that the majority – 62 percent – of the 4.2 million Tweets posted about aging in the last 12 months were negative.”

There are some conspicuous gaps in the Pfizer survey. For example, key topics seem to have been omitted, such as the fear of losing loved ones. And the sample size is relatively small. Still, the survey reveals the widespread FOGO in our society. What can we do about it?

Three Happy Truths About Getting Older

For starters, know the amazing facts. Here are three things to know about the benefits of aging:

1. Older people tend to be happier people.

Older and happier? Yes. As I write here, surveys from all over the world show a similar pattern: Adults are least happy in mid-life, with the happiness low point at age 50. But starting at about age 51, happiness levels begin to increase. In fact, as they aged, older adults rated their life satisfaction progressively higher, with happiness ratings rising gradually and steadily from age 50 on.

Do these feelings last forever? No, but they can last until almost the very end of life. Let’s face it, at that point, disability and final illness exact their toll on many. Still, the survey research is enlightening. It not only reframes but actually reverses the usual narrative about Old Age as a time of misery.

If you have a friend who is freaking out at the prospect of turning 50, tell them, that starting at age 51, they will begin to feel a whole lot happier.

2. Older people tend to be healthier people.

Physically, of course, all of our parts are aging. There’s no denying that. Geriatrician Louise Aronson, the author of Elderhood, points out that no matter how many blueberries you eat, your body is going to get older. And however healthy your lifestyle may be, you will probably have some physical challenges as you age.

But Aronson also points out that most older people rate their health as good or excellent because they can still do the things that matter most to them. Moreover, only about 1 percent of older people are in nursing homes. Because the population is aging, the absolute number of people with dementia is going up, but the percentage of people with dementia is declining, and there are well-researched ways to prevent 40 percent of dementias like Alzheimer’s.

3. Older people are mentally healthier.

Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, notes that mental health generally improves with age. From her book, A Long Bright Future, here are the specifics:

  • Older people have lower rates of nearly all mental health problems, including depression and social anxiety, than younger people do.
  • “Olders”* over 65 have “the most stable and optimistic outlook” of all adults.
  • Olders report being happier with their relationships than youngers.
  • Some psychological abilities increase with age: gratitude, the ability to resolve conflicts, and forgiveness, for example.

Still, aging does have its challenges. How could you combat those fears about aging listed in the survey?

Draft a Plan for Healthy Aging

“Turn fears into healthy actions,” recommends Freda Lewis-Hall, M.D., former Chief Medical Officer at Pfizer. “People of all ages should start thinking about how they want to age and turn fears into healthy actions.”

To address the top fears listed in the Pfizer survey, consider the actions below as a worthwhile investment into your aging portfolio.

1. Counter the fear of physical decline and chronic illness with regular exercise and other healthy lifestyle practices.

Suggestions:

  • Aim for 150 minutes of exercise per week. Do whatever you can do; just do something. Plus, get up every hour and move around to counteract possible “sitting diseases.”
  • Eat right and maintain a healthy weight. While blueberries and kale may not be the fountain of youth, healthy eating will reduce the chance of chronic health problems.
  • Sleep seven to nine hours a night.

2. Counter the fear of memory loss with up-to-date information, prevention, and planning.

Suggestions:

  • Follow the lifestyle recommendations above. Research suggests that a meditation practice might help, too.
  • Avoid outside activity when the air quality is poor. Protect young children from polluted air, too. Remember, aging begins even before birth.
  • Keep your blood pressure low.
  • Avoid concussions.
  • Acquaint yourself with the latest research on preventing dementias here.

3. Counter the fear of running out of money with a sound financial plan.

Suggestions:

  • Check your social security and retirement accounts regularly.
  • Consult with a trusted CPA or financial planner.
  • If possible, save more and spend less.

4. Counter fears of loneliness and of losing loved ones by maintaining social connections. (You’ll live a longer and happier life, too.)

Suggestions:

  • Cherish your friends and connect often.
  • Make friends of all ages.
  • Cherish your family and keep in touch.

The Big Picture

To make sure that your older years are more joyous and less anxious, be alert to ways you can advocate for societal changes that support a better aging process for everyone. Among other things, you might vote to support healthcare for all and to protect and expand Medicare and Social Security. You might advocate for good pain management, better housing options for elders, and universal design in all new construction. Demand larger print and smaller pills.

Finally, to counter any remaining FOGO, memorize this wise quote from broadcaster Andy Rooney: “I didn’t get old on purpose. It just happened. If you’re lucky, it could happen to you.”

(c) Meg Selig, 2021.

Note: * I have adopted the useful term “olders” from Ashton Applewhite’s book on ageism, This Chair Rocks.

References

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Aronson, L. (2019). Elderhood. NY: Bloomsbury Press.

Carstensen, L. L. (2011). A Long Bright Future: Happiness, Health, and Financial Security in an Age of Increased Longevity. NY: Perseus Books, p.110.

Rauch, j. (2018) The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50. NY: St. Martin’s Press.

Selig, M. (2020) Silver Sparks: Thoughts on Growing Older, Wiser, and Happier. Sierra Vista, AZ: Jetlaunch.

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