Editor’s note: Dr. Sharon Horesh Bergquist is a doctor who works with Emory Healthcare and is an assistant professor of medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine
(CNN) — From magazine covers to billboards, youth is glamorized as the image of beauty and the prime of life. We are inundated with the message that aging is something we should dread and perhaps even fight.
You may unquestioningly accept this as a fact of life. You may even laugh about being “over the hill.” The only problem is that such thinking comes at a price: Internalizing these ageist stereotypes is harmful to your health.
The way you perceive aging can actually influence how you age. Aging, like many aspects of life, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Positive and negative attitudes can affect your health behaviorally, psychologically and even biologically. Being “pro-aging,” or satisfied with your own aging, can make you adopt healthier behaviors, feel in control of how you age and even heighten your immune system. Being “anti-aging,” or perceiving aging negatively, can do the opposite.
Here are five powerful benefits of “pro-aging” thinking:
It can help you live longer. In 2001, researchers from Yale and Harvard University looked at 660 participants between the ages of 50 and 80 who participated in a community-based survey, the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement. They measured how self-perception of aging impacted survival over the course of 22.6 years. They found that participants who held a more positive attitude about their own aging — such as continuing to feel useful and happy — lived, on average, 7.5 years longer.
In fact, they found that perception of aging influenced longevity even more than blood pressure, cholesterol, body mass index, or a person’s tendency to exercise.
It can reduce disability. Loss of independence is among the greatest fears most people have about getting older. Staying physically and cognitively active can defend against disability. Yet less emphasized is the role of your belief about your own aging. In a study published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, participants in the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement who held a positive self-perception of aging had a greater ability to carry out daily activities over an 18-year period, regardless of their functional health at the start of the study.
It can help you practice prevention. Preventive habits have been proven to continually improve health and quality of life at every age, yet older adults are less likely to engage in preventive behaviors. Misconceptions about aging, such as believing that heart disease is inevitable, can weaken the motivation to follow a preventive lifestyle. Similarly, a negative perception of aging may adversely influence your habits. In a 2004 study, the participants in the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement who had more positive perceptions of aging were significantly more likely to have physical exams, eat a balanced diet, exercise and take prescriptions as directed over a 20-year period.
It can boost your memory. Be careful what you think. According to The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, the longest-running study of memory and aging, expecting memory decline can actually contribute to memory loss over time. Over a 38-year period, participants 60 years of age and older who held more negative stereotypes of cognitive aging had a 30.2% greater decline in memory performance than those who held less negative stereotypes about memory and aging.
It can help your heart. Lastly, believing in negative age stereotypes can increase your risk of heart disease. When negative stereotypes are formed early in life, they can have a profound impact on health decades later. In a study from participants in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, young adults who held negative age stereotypes were significantly more likely to experience a cardiovascular event over the next 38 years. However, by making a significant positive change in their stereotype of aging, of two standard deviations on an administered age-stereotype scale, these young adults could reduce their risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event by 80%.
The psychological path to aging gracefully
You can begin shaping your self-prophecy of how you will age by becoming aware of your current perception and internalized expectations about aging. How do you picture aging? Do you anticipate wisdom or senility? Do you envision vivacity or debility?
Looking and feeling young as you age begins with believing you can look and feel young as you age.
That isn’t always easy. Western cultural and religious roots of ageism are deeply entrenched in the Protestant work ethic and the American Dream, both of which value youth by defining personal worth in terms of active engagement in work.
Adopting more of an Eastern mindset can help redirect your prophecy. Buddhist, Confucian and Taoist philosophical traditions value old age as a socially valuable part of life, even a time of “spring” or “rebirth.”
Start determining your aging prophecy today by celebrating and embracing each year, both for the triumphs and the hardships that it may bring.
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