Opinion

Latimer: Positive impressions of aging are self-fulfilling

What do you think about getting older?

Are you looking forward to your senior years—to wisdom, self-realization and the chance to look with satisfaction at the life you have created?

Or are you dreading the years that make up the latter part of your life?

Are you fearful of a changing physical appearance, of medical concerns or a lack of purpose when you’ve finished your career?

According to research, the way we view old age will have quite an impact on the way we experience it.

This may not be entirely surprising to you.

In general, our beliefs shape us.

The things we hold true—whether about ourselves or the world around us—tend to be evident in our lives because they affect the way we interact with our environment.

Research out of Yale University has found that age stereotypes have an impact on the health of seniors.

When stereotypes are negative, individuals are less likely to take preventive medical steps and can even die sooner.

They are also more likely to have poor physical functioning and memory loss.

Individuals with a more positive outlook on aging experience better health with higher functioning and are even 44 per cent more likely to fully recover from a disability.

One study followed 660 adults for 23 years, between 1975 and 1998.

At the start of the study, participants answered questions to gain a sense of their age stereotypes.

Among this group, those with positive beliefs about aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those with negative beliefs.

Researchers believe individuals with positive age stereotypes have a stronger will to live, which may help them adapt to the changes of older age.

Similarly, those with negative stereotypes may have an increased cardiovascular response to stress.

Another study by the same group found those with positive beliefs about aging were more likely to eat well, exercise, limit alcohol consumption, stop smoking and visit their doctors regularly.

In a newer study, again from the Yale researchers, almost 600 adults aged 70 and older were followed from 1998 to 2008 to examine the impact of age stereotypes on recovery from disability.

Again, those with positive beliefs were much more likely to have good results and recover fully.

Beliefs and stereotypes about aging begin early in life and are reinforced by experiences and the way our society and families treat the elderly.

North American culture is typically not very good at celebrating or valuing age—and this growing body of research suggests we would do well to change in this area.

Paul Latimer is a psychiatrist and president of Okanagan Clinical Trials.

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