By David Heitz
Watch what you say around older Americans. The saying “words matter" holds true for them just as it does for young children who get bullied in elementary school.
In fact, research shows that when older people are led to believe that getting older is inevitably horrible, or when they think they are becoming a burden to others, it causes them to decline physically and mentally faster.
“Older people who feel they are a burden perceive their lives to be less valuable, putting them at risk of depression and social isolation," the World Health Organization recently proclaimed. WHO issued a statement about ageism after analyzing research that showed negative attitudes toward older people are rampant, particularly in high-income countries such as the United States. (1)
“This analysis confirms that ageism is extremely common. Yet most people are completely unaware of the subconscious stereotypes that they hold about old people," said John Beard, WHO Director of Aging and Life Course. “Like sexism and racism, changing social norms is possible. It is time to stop defining people by their age. It will result in healthier, prosperous, equitable and healthier societies."
Study: Positive thinking can add 7.5 years of life
A 2002 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that “older individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging, measured up to 23 years earlier, lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging." (2)
In other words, not only are you harming the health of older Americans around you when you speak negatively about aging, but you are reinforcing it in your mind, and you will believe it and feel its detrimental effects when you get older, too.
The researchers, led by Becca Levy at the Yale School of Public Health, said that positive thinking toward aging led to the longer lives regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness, and functional health. “It was also found that this is partially mediated by will to live," they wrote.
The sample included 660 people age 50 and older who participated in the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement. The authors followed up on those who completed the survey from mortality data obtained from the National Death Index. “The findings suggest that the self-perceptions of stigmatized groups can influence longevity," they concluded.
Be careful of the words you choose to describe aging
So how do you affirm people who are getting older instead of insulting them? For starters, be careful of the words you use. In a study published in Aging Mental Health, researchers found that words such as “elderly person" and “senior citizen" were assigned negative connotations known as a “reverse golden section hypothesis." The Golden Section Hypothesis holds that people assign information in a ratio of 61.8 percent positive to 38.2 percent negative.
But the reverse held true for words associated with aging. “This suggests that such identities have stigma associated with them. Because American society has coupled aging to stigma, people have come to associate negative connotations with certain age-related terms," the authors concluded. (3)
A 2012 study in Australia that measured life satisfaction among people age 60 and older concluded, “The promotion of successful aging is increasingly becoming important in aging societies. Having positive attitudes toward aging may contribute to healthier mental and physical outcomes in older adults. Overcoming negative stereotypes of aging through change at the societal and individual level may help to promote more successful aging." (4)
Throw old stereotypes about health & aging out the window
Be mindful of the fact that long-held ideas about aging have become archaic. In a 2015 report by World Health Organization, WHO points out, “Older populations are characterized by great diversity. For example, some 80-year-olds have levels of physical and mental capacity comparable to those of 20-year-olds. Policies must be framed in ways that enable as many people as possible to achieve these positive trajectories of aging." (5)
That means policies such as mandatory retirement ages need to be discarded, as some people are able and more than willing to continue working – retiring at 65 is the last thing they want to do. At the same time, well-intentioned proclamations such as “60 is the new 40" aren't realistic either, as some older Americans do develop chronic illnesses, and such statements imply that older people shouldn't need a little extra help to remain independent.
Make the environments of older people easier to age in
Many older people will tell you that life only has gotten better as they age. It's important to affirm this healthy way of positive thinking. As WHO points out in its 2015 report on aging, “Older age frequently involves significant changes beyond biological losses. These include shifts in roles and social positions, and the need to deal with the loss of close relationships. In response, older adults tend to select fewer and more meaningful goals and activities, optimize their existing abilities through practice and new technologies, and compensate for the losses of some abilities by finding other ways to accomplish tasks…These psychosocial changes may explain why in many settings, older age can be a period of heightened subjective well-being."
Helping older people share and celebrate the feeling of inner peace that comes with aging actually helps keep them young.
The WHO report stresses that communities need to be designed in ways that make it easier for older adults to make these adaptations. That includes things such as good public transportation systems for people who no longer drive, social opportunities with other older adults with whom they may find things in common, and an adequate stock of housing designed to make living safe for older Americans (adapted bathrooms, laundry on the same level, etc.).
- 1. World Health Organization. (2016, Sept. 29). Discrimination and negative attitudes about aging are bad for your health. Retrieved Feb. 2, 2017, from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2016/discrimination-ageing-youth/en/
- 2. Levy, B. et al. (2002. 83(2); 261-270). Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Retrieved Feb. 2, 2107, from http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/83/2/261/
- 3. Widrick, R.M. et al. (2010 May;14(4):375-85). Age-related stigma and the Golden Section Hypothesis. Aging Mental Health. Retrieved Feb. 2, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20455112
- 4. Bryant, C. et al. (2012, May 30). International Psychogeriatrics. The relationship between attitudes to aging and physical and mental health in older adults. Retrieved Feb. 2, 2017, from https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/international-psychogeriatrics/article/div-classtitlethe-relationship-between-attitudes-to-aging-and-physical-and-mental-health-in-older-adultsdiv/5824A4FC3E98C7DD65F6A4BC0E68E98F
- 5. World Health Organization. (2015). Summary, World Report on Ageing and Health. Retrieved Feb. 2, 2017, from http://www.who.int/ageing/events/world-report-2015-launch/en/