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Positive Attitudes About Aging May Be a "Fountain of Youth"

Positive self-perceptions about getting older may slow down the aging process.

Having a positive outlook on aging may help keep you physically and psychologically younger.
Source: Tommaso Lizzul/Shutterstock

Betty Friedan famously said, "Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength." Recently, researchers identified that having positive self-perceptions about the benefits of getting older can create a self-fulfilling prophecy by helping someone stay mentally, physically, and psychologically younger.

Over the years, various studies have found a strong correlation between negative perceptions about aging and physical frailty. Additionally, researchers have identified that physical frailty in older age is associated with lower cognitive abilities, when compared to peers who are less frail in older age. Frailty appears to trigger a domino effect that often cascades into dementia.

A new study by researchers in Ireland reports that having a positive attitude about aging may help prevent older adults from becoming frail, which in turn appears to keep their minds sharp. On the flip side, the researchers confirmed that having negative attitudes about aging affect both physical and cognitive health in later years. The researchers concluded, “Negative perceptions of aging may modify the association between frailty and frontal cognitive domains in older adults.”

The January 2016 study, “Negative Perceptions of Aging Modify the Association Between Frailty and Cognitive Function in Older Adults,” was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

For this study, all 4,135 men and women who are part of the Irish Longitudinal Study on Aging (TILDA) at Trinity College Dublin completed the Brief Aging Perceptions Questionnaire (B-APQ) , underwent cognitive testing, along with being rated for levels of physical frailty.

The data from TILDA provides a unique opportunity for researchers to study attitudes towards aging because the team tracks health changes over time in a specific community-dwelling of older adults that is representative of nationwide demographics.

3 Key Findings From the Study On Aging by TILDA

  1. Older adults with negative attitudes towards aging had slower walking speed and worse cognitive abilities two years later, compared to older adults with more positive attitudes towards aging.
  2. This was true even after participants' medications, mood, their life circumstances and other health changes that had occurred over the same two-year period were accounted for.
  3. Furthermore, negative attitudes towards aging seemed to affect how different health conditions interacted. Frail older adults are at risk of multiple health problems including worse cognition. In the TILDA sample frail participants with negative attitudes towards aging had worse cognition compared to participants who were not frail.

In a press release, lead researcher Deirdre Robertson, Ph.D., described her team's findings, "The way we think about, talk about and write about aging may have direct effects on health. Everyone will grow older and if negative attitudes towards aging are carried throughout life they can have a detrimental, measurable effect on mental, physical and cognitive health."

"I Believe If I Refuse to Grow Old, I Can Stay Young Till I Die"

When my mom turned forty, in the mid-1970s, my father took our family to see the original cast of Pippin on Broadway to celebrate her birthday. Like many women in the '70s, my mom thought that turning forty was a milestone that meant she was officially over-the-hill.

For my mother, the anticipation of her big Four-O seemed to trigger a midlife crisis. In the months leading up to her fortieth birthday, I remember my mom getting a perm, having her teeth wired together so she couldn't eat solid foods, going on a liquid-protein diet, and buying an excessive number of Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses in every print pattern imaginable.

Luckily, seeing Pippin changed my mother's attitude about aging by giving her a new anthem, "No Time At All," sung by Pippin's rebellious and spry grandmother, Berthe. In the song, 'Granny' gives sage advice about the importance of having a positive attitude and sense of humor about aging. Berthe sings, "Here is a secret I never have told. Maybe you'll understand why. I believe if I refuse to grow old, I can stay young till I die."

One of my most vivid childhood memories is my mother's age-defying habit of singing along to the 8-track of Pippin at the top of her lungs in our vintage wood-paneled station wagon. It's been over four decades since my mom turned forty. The good news is that she still seems as young-at-heart and filled with a sense of carpe diem as she did the day she turned forty.

My mother's joie de vivre and youthfulness as an 80-year-old is an anecdotal testament to the empirical evidence of the TILDA study. As someone in my 50s now, I've officially adopted "No Time At All" as my 'positive attitudes about aging with a sense of humor' anthem.

Conclusion: Self-Perceptions About Aging Are Influenced by the Media

Obviously, we live in an ageist society. Therefore, it’s especially important to closely watch our personal inner dialogue and explanatory style about getting older. The new study from Trinity College Dublin reminds us that when it comes to aging, “attitude is everything.”

The new TILDA findings also remind us that our self-perceptions about aging are important predictors of physical and cognitive function in later life. If you are feeling cynical or dejected about getting older, it’s probably time for an attitude adjustment. Hopefully, this study will inspire thought leaders and those in the media to make more of an effort to present positive images of vivacious older people.

Regardless of the media influences—or societal pressures that can make us feel depressed about getting old—your own self-perceptions about aging are in the locus of your control. You can decide to frame getting older as being completely negative, or you can focus on all the silver linings and benefits of being older. The choice is yours.

Personally, I love getting older. Although I no longer have six-pack abs, can’t run a six-minute mile, and often wake up feeling a bit "achy breaky" . . . I wouldn't trade the wisdom of old age for my youthful physique or athletic prowess in a million years. I'm infinitely more comfortable in my own skin as an older adult. Plus, I have peace of mind and a sense of fulfillment that I didn't know was feasible as a youngster.

Lastly, although this study doesn’t look at the impact of physical fitness on frailty specifically, remaining active and exercising regularly can help keep older adults robust. Staying physically strong and resilient is key to stopping the ripple effect of physical decline that is linked to poorer cognition in old age.

In closing, here’s a YouTube link to the original version of “No Time At All.” Maybe this song can become a new anthem that will help you maintain your sense of humor and positive attitudes about aging, too?

To read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts,

© 2016 Christopher Bergland. All rights reserved.

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