The Last Word: Attitudes About Aging Influence How We Age — Insights From Successful Aging
Many myths that exist about what to expect in older age along with attitudes about aging can influence how people age and how we treat older adults. People often hold negative beliefs or expectations about aging. Younger people frequently stereotype older adults with negative terms such as “grumpy,” “over the hill,” or “old fogey.” However, healthy older adults often report higher levels of overall happiness than do younger adults and are less likely to be depressed.
Research that measures attitudes about aging shows how it can be related to longevity. People who disagree with statements such as “the human body is like a car: when it gets older it gets worn out” or “it’s normal to be depressed when you’re old” are more likely to engage in activities that promote longevity. Positive expectations can yield results. Physicians’ attitudes can also play an important role. Walking is one of the best and simplest activities people of any age can do to keep both the body and brain in tune. Research has shown that walking can lead to an increase in the size of the hippocampus, the brain region most associated with memory function. Walking can improve both memory and balance and can also serve as a social occasion. However, physicians may be less likely to encourage older adults to walk if they associate aging with frailty.
Attitudes and knowledge about aging also can influence if, when, and how we exercise. I would never have thought of training my balance until I learned about how serious a fall can be as we age. While people may experience more aches and pains in older age, walking and simple balance training are among the best ways to ensure brain and body vitality. Most people don’t notice poor balance until they have had a bad fall. It’s important that older adults perform routine balance training at their own pace (eg, standing on one leg for a few seconds) to help prevent falls, which often hospitalize people after the age of 50. And it’s not necessary to go to a yoga class to do so; I practice it every morning when I’m brushing my teeth—standing on one leg for one minute and then switching.
One way we can update our attitudes and expectations about aging is to think of positive role models. Can you think of an older role model—someone you admire for how they have aged? This could be a parent, grandparent, colleague, or friend. For my recent book about successful aging, I interviewed many older adults, including Maya Angelou, Bob Newhart, Jack LaLanne, Jared Diamond, John Glenn, and John Wooden, asking them what they think leads to successful aging. They had a variety of responses, including activity, positivity, and variety. John Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach who lived to age 99, said the two most important words in life were “love” and “balance.” Finding love and having balance in life—both mentally and physically—may be essential keys to successful aging; falls can lead to hospitalizations, less independence, and less walking. Talking to these individuals who shared many insights about aging provided me with inspiration and led me to question some of the myths of old age.
We are all getting older; however, if we think we are young, then we’re “older adults in training.” What we do earlier in life and the attitudes we develop about aging can influence our expectations about old age. Self-fulfilling behaviors can prevail if people have negative expectations about aging.
Clinicians know that aging, especially for some patients, can be full of hurdles. However, it’s also important to stress that patients can be active and happy in older age. One’s attitude can play a major role in how the challenges are faced and what can be done to be happy and healthy at any age.
— Alan D. Castel, PhD, is a professor of psychology at UCLA and author of Better With Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging.