Feel bad about getting old? You may be hurting yourself.
We’ve heard all the cliches about aging: “You’re as young [or old] as you feel.” “Age is just a number.” “You’re not getting older, you’re getting better.” “Seventy is the new 50.” Well-intentioned, perhaps. Offensive, to some. Patronizing, to be sure. But could they be true?
Maybe science has started to catch up with these tired phrases. Researchers have discovered that many people do feel good about themselves as they get older — and there may be practical advantages to embracing that point of view.
One study, for example, found that as people age, they consistently say they feel younger — much younger — than their actual age. Another study examining the attitudes of the offspring of centenarians concluded that the centenarians’ children — if they, too, were healthy and long-lived — have a strong sense of purpose and meaning to their lives, compared with the general population. Finally, there is evidence that positive attitudes about aging may reduce the risk of dementia, among the most dreaded consequences of aging.
The results are compelling in the context of negative messages about aging from the media, in the workplace, and elsewhere, messages that are far more prevalent than positive communications, according to the researchers.
“Children as young as 3 or 4 have already taken in the age stereotypes of their culture,” says Becca Levy, a professor of psychology at Yale whose study found that older adults with positive beliefs about old age were less likely to develop dementia, including those who are genetically disposed. “These age stereotypes are communicated to children through many sources, ranging from stories to social media. Individuals of all ages can benefit from bolstering their positive images of aging.”
William Chopik, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, agrees. “Negative views about aging are communicated to us early in life, through media, books, and movies, and what our friends and family tell us,” Chopik says. “These attitudes are present and pervasive already in childhood, so naturally it’s hard to enact meaningful change to these attitudes — but that’s what we’re trying to do at the moment.”
Chopik’s study, which surveyed over half a million Americans via the Internet, found that as people got older they nevertheless continued to feel younger than their chronological age.
“Sixty-year-olds felt like they were 46,” he says. “Seventy-year-olds felt like they were 53. Eighty-year-olds felt like they were 65. It looks like this is pretty consistent across age groups. People know that they are aging, but they are evaluating themselves and their lives and reporting feeling about 20 percent younger than their current age.”
He queried people from ages 10 to 89 and found that views change as they grow older. While people in their 70s and 80s reported feeling younger than their chronological years, teenagers and young adults equated turning 50 with hitting old age. This attitude persists into old age, according to Chopik. When people turn 70, 80 seems old. When someone turns 80, 90 is old, he says.
“Part of that might arise from not wanting to be considered an older adult,” Chopik says. “As a result, people could be perpetually pushing what is considered an older adult into the future. It could also arise from people feeling good about themselves and their bodies, and coming to the realization that, because of their negative beliefs about what it must feel like to be an older adult that ‘I must not be old.’ ’’
The centenarians’ offspring study used data from the New England Centenarian Study, which has followed nearly 4,000 centenarians, and some of their siblings and children, since 1994.
Researchers at the Boston University School of Public Health compared healthy and long-living children of centenarians — average age, 82 — with three groups: their spouses, their “birth cohort” (a group whose parents, though born at the same time as the centenarians, lived only into their early 70s), and participants in the Health and Retirement Study, a nationally representative study of more than 30,000 individuals older than 50.
Using a survey that measured psychological well-being, they asked respondents to agree or disagree with such statements as “I enjoy making plans for the future and working to make them a reality” and “My daily activities often seem trivial and unimportant to me.” They found that children of centenarians expressed more purpose in life than any of the other three groups.
“Aging well is not only escaping or delaying disease,” says coauthor Paola Sebastiani, a professor of biostatistics at the Boston University School of Public Health. “Feeling good about your life is important and should be considered an important aspect of healthy aging.”
In her dementia research, Levy evaluated 4,765 older people — average age, 72 — who were free of dementia at the start of the study and followed them for four years. The participants answered a series of questions about their beliefs about aging. “We found [that] those who expressed more-positive age beliefs at baseline were less likely to develop dementia . . . than those who expressed more-negative age beliefs,” Levy said.
This protective effect was found for all participants, including those who carry the E4 variant of the gene APOE, which raises their dementia risk. About a quarter of Americans carry this variant, although only 47 percent of them develop dementia, she said. The reason the remaining 53 percent never develop dementia is unknown.
The APOE E4 carriers with positive beliefs about aging had a 2.7 percent risk of developing dementia, compared to a 6.1 percent risk for carriers with negative beliefs, according to the study. (Twenty-six percent of the study participants were carriers.)
“We know . . . that exposing older individuals to negative age stereotypes exacerbates stress, whereas exposing them to positive age stereotypes can act as a buffer against experiencing stress,” Levy says. “It is also known that about half the people with the APOE E4 never develop dementia. Therefore, we thought that it is possible that those who have more-positive age stereotypes — which can reduce stress levels — may have altered genetic expression in later life that reduces the likelihood of developing dementia.”
The results bolster the case “for implementing a public health campaign against ageism and negative age beliefs,” she says. Even “individuals in their 80s and 90s can strengthen their positive images of aging.”
Chopik agrees, pointing out that all too often attitudes about aging arise from anxiety over physical ability, appearance, loneliness or boredom. “However, many studies of older adults debunk these perceptions,” he says. “Older adults live enriching and very active lives — so these perceptions aren’t rooted entirely in reality.”