A recent Oregon State University (OS) study found that people who believe that they are capable of becoming the healthy, engaged person they want to be in old age, they will be much more likely to experience that outcome.
"Previous research has shown that people who have positive views of aging at 50 live 7.5 years longer, on average, than people who don't," said Karen Hooker, co-author of the study and the Jo Anne Leonard Petersen Endowed Chair in Gerontology and Family Studies at OSU.
The study examined two factors: self-efficacy associated with possible selves (meaning a person's perceived ability to become the person they want to be in the future), and optimism as a general personality trait.
The researchers measured self-perception of aging by having respondents say how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like:
- Things keep getting worse as I get older.
- I have as much pep as I had last year.
- As you get older, you are less useful.
- In uncertain times I usually expect the best.
To measure self-efficacy, the study used a dataset that compiled survey responses from older adults where they listed two "hoped-for" future selves and two "feared" future selves, and ranked how capable they felt of becoming the person they hoped to be and avoiding becoming the person they feared to be.
Among the "hoped for" selves were concepts like socializing and having a strong network of friends, and healthy, active lifestyles. Examples of "feared" selves include being sick or in pain, cranky or angry, and dependent on others daily.
Results showed that higher optimism was associated with more positive self-perception of aging. A major factor in how people see their aging selves is internalizing ageist stereotypes, the researchers reported. Examples of such stereotypes include assumptions that older adults are bad drivers, suffer memory problems, or are no longer able to engage in physical activity. The stereotypes get reinforced every time an older adult forgets something and jokes, "Another senior moment!" But the researchers say these thought patterns can do real harm.
"People need to realize that some of the negative health consequences in later life might not be biologically driven. The mind and the body are all interwoven," noted Hooker. "If you believe these bad things are going to happen, over time that can erode people's willingness or maybe even eventually their ability to engage in those health behaviors that are going to keep them as healthy as they can be."
They note that one way to rid negative stereotypes is to promote intergenerational relationships, so younger people can see older adults enjoying happy, healthy lives.