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Attitude Check: Feeling “Old” Can Cause Us to Age Faster

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Are you feeling old these days? Oh, sure, we all have days when we wake up with stiff muscles or when a little extra yard work aggravates that sore back. On those days we may “feel old” because, well, we’re not as limber as we used to be.

But according to this recent article from NextAvenue, what we tell ourselves about our age and now we perceive it can make a big difference to the quality of our daily lives. Research also shows that a negative attitude about our own aging process can even have a negative effect our longevity. If we find ourselves chronically feeling old, it may be time for an attitude adjustment.

Are you guilty of this kind of “internal ageism” when it comes to growing old? The NextAvenue report by Bob Brody, author and health journalist, might shed some light on this important topic. Let’s dive deeper.

Feeling Old Means Accepting Arbitrary Limits

Brody begins with a personal anecdote, a conversation with his grandmother soon after he turned forty, when she asked him, “Are you taking care of your health?”

When he answered that he was, she looked skeptical, so—to prove it—he got down on his hands and knees and did 25 push-ups, right there in front of her. Sadly, this did not have the desired effect.

“You’re 40 now, Robert,” Brody’s grandmother said, with a dismayed rebuke. “You’re too old to be doing push-ups.”

Feeling Old Means Self-Stereotyping

“So it often went back then, more than 30 years ago, and well before,” Brody laments. “Once you reached a certain ‘advanced’ age, whether 40, 60 or 80, you were no longer supposed to do A, B or C.”

But, according to Brody, this is a type of self-stereotyping known as “internalized ageism,” and it still goes on today, even if it’s a bit less prevalent. “We all too often allow our chronological age to define — and sometimes even dictate — our attitude about what we can do or best avoid,” Brody explains. “We let how we feel about our age tell us how old we should act and how much we can achieve. A 2020 survey asked 2,000 Americans to pinpoint the age at which they considered themselves old: the average answer was 57.” 

Feeling Old: We Often Overemphasize Age

Tracey Gendron, chair of the Virginia Commonwealth University department of gerontology and an author experienced in the subject, wants to encourage people to stop using age as an indicator of ability. “Your age tells you only so much about what you can do,” she says. “By itself your age indicates little or nothing about your health, happiness or likely longevity.”

Brody notes that everyone ages differently based on their genetics, socio-economic situation, lifestyle, and where they live. “Characteristics that typically correspond to old age, chiefly declines in physical and cognitive function, can emerge either early or late,” he explains. “Biomarkers associated with age –such as grip strength, lung capacity and skin elasticity – can and often do vary widely. One person may be biologically ‘old’ at 50, while another is still technically ‘young’ at 75. “

Feeling Old: Perception of Age Dramatically Impacts Longevity

Perception is key, according to research, and can have real effects on our daily lives and our potential longevity. Brody writes, “One study followed more than 1,100 people age 50 and older across several decades and asked how they viewed aging personally. Those with a positive view of getting older, compared to those with a negative view, lived an average of 7.6 years longer.”

By contrast, negativity doesn’t just shorten your life expectancy – it can make you sick and ruin the years you do have. Brody adds, “Another study tracked beliefs in adults from twentysomethings to age 60. Those who saw aging as a negative were about 40 percent more likely than those with a positive perspective to suffer a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular disturbance.” 

Feeling Old: Pessimism Becomes Self-Fulfilling

Negative beliefs can lead to pessimism, and pessimism has been linked with other deleterious behaviors. In a 2015 study, Brody tells us that older adults who perceived themselves as “frail” were more likely to stop doing physical activities, like exercise, which only serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“That shift in behavior backfires as lack of movement threatens to accelerate frailty,” Brody writes.

Gendron confirms this, adding, “Internalized ageism may give you an excuse to take less care of yourself. It can block you from finding purpose and value in later life, and you may feel less like you belong and matter. It can even lead to higher risk of suicidal ideation.”

Positive Views on Aging Enhance Overall Health

But is the opposite true? Thankfully, Brody says yes.

Evidence increasingly makes a strong case that viewing your own aging favorably is demonstrably good for your health,” he writes. “It can lower your blood pressure and your risks of developing dementia; raise the likelihood that you’ll exercise regularly and enable you to recover more fully from severe disability; and boost your sense of emotional well-being. You can live a healthier, longer and more high-quality life.”

The benefits extend to your brain, too, as some research suggests that positive associations with aging can make you better at skills like pattern recognition and conflict resolution. You may also get better at something called metacognition, “defined as thinking about thinking or learning how to learn,” Brody explains.

He gives us another surprising finding, discovered when researchers in 2015 scanned the brains of and gave surveys to participants averaging age 71. Brody writes, “The scans disclosed that that the older adults who reported feeling younger than they actually were had brains structured like those of people younger than they, containing more of the gray matter vital to cognitive function that typically shrinks with age.” 

Aging is Much More than a “Process of Decline”

“We’re taught that aging is a process of decline — that’s largely why we misunderstand it — but we’re actually always growing and developing,” Gendron explains.

Brody agrees, which is why he was able to pursue a new profession in his 40s, kick off a sideline career in his 50s, start his own business in his late 60s, and play pickup basketball until he was nearly 70.

But aside from his own example, he also provides us with the story of Kristina Puga, 46, a journalist in Miami, Florida. Puga’s blog, called “Wiser With Age,” featured profiles of people 60 plus, and all of them were thriving while doing what they loved into their 90s and beyond.

“These individuals were quite similar to a younger person – they have passions and dreams – just with more life experience,” Puga says. “I saw how the power of staying optimistic about getting older rendered them ageless.”

In a beautiful twist, this experience confirmed Puga’s own belief that she would never be too old for anything, which prompted her to marry for the first time at 43 and have her first baby at 44. “You never really know what’s around the corner,” Puga says. “But I tend to believe that where you are at a particular moment is where you’re supposed to be.”

Feeling Old: Time to Stop Acting Your Age!

Brody poses what he calls the “big question”, here: “Do you play the numbers — or, rather, let the numbers play you?” In other words, have you resolved to “act your age”?

“The upshot is that your age is just a number, no more and no less,” Brody writes. “Chronological age tells us only how long we’ve lived so far. But numbers can lie. No one-size-fits-all formula can accurately assess our capabilities at any given age. Our ‘subjective’ age (how we feel about our current age) counts, too.”

One major pitfall that we risk as we grow older lies in doing the math and deciding that we’re now “too old” for this and “certainly much too old” for that. “Suddenly we’re tempted to rate our performance according to conventional expectations for our age. It’s akin to quantifying a handicap in golf to level the playing field,” Brody adds.

But this attitude only puts us in the habit of lowering our standards, or what Brody calls “grading ourselves on a curve”, giving ourselves an excuse to give up on our health, family, friends, intellects, careers, communities, or spirits. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Aging is a Reality, but Not Necessarily a Limitation

That said, Brody is fair, writing that “nobody should fault you for occasionally cutting yourself a little slack on this front. After all, getting older is a reality, inevitable, irrefutable and irreversible. Let’s face it: your age is strictly non-negotiable.”

The important thing is to remember that “your cup can runneth over at any age,” as Brody puts it. “For proof, just look at all the late bloomers who swear by the credo that it’s never too late to try almost anything. They’re out there on the frontier of ‘old age’ defying the odds and refusing to settle for diminishing returns. They’re learning chess at 50, playing soccer with grandchildren at 60 and starting to believe in God at 70.”

Cultivating Optimism – Because Our Mindset Matters

And so, Brody explains, cultivating optimism about getting older might be the best cure there is for all of the least desirable parts of aging.

“Recognize that age is largely a state of mind, and that mindset matters,” he writes. “Focus on how much you’re gaining with age — prowess at executive function and possibly even a hint of wisdom — rather than what you’re losing. If you cop the right attitude — and treat attitude itself as if it were a muscle in need of training — you’re all but guaranteed to fare well.”

Gendron says, “We should never feel the need to let our age define us. Instead, we should each take responsibility for ourselves and optimize our age.”

At 72, Brody concludes with these wise words: “I’ll keep moving forward. I’m going all-out to take care of unfinished business. My age promotes a growing sense of urgency. I feel compelled to try to make up for some of the time I’ve lost or wasted. I’m now more greedy than ever for more — more peace, more love, more rewards both tangible and intangible. I have no intention of conceding even an inch to age — that is, unless I either want to or have to. It’s still too soon.”

(originally reported at www.nextavenue.org)

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