A recent Oregon State University study concluded that if you believe you are capable of becoming the healthy, engaged person you want to be in old age, you are much more likely to experience that outcome.
Previous studies on aging have found that how people thought about themselves at age 50 predicted a wide range of future health outcomes up to 40 years later - cardiovascular events, memory, balance, will to live, hospitalizations; even mortality. Specifically, that research showed that people who have positive views of aging at 50 live 7.5 years longer, on average, than people who don’t.
Because self-perceptions of aging are linked to so many major health outcomes, the OSU team wanted to understand what influences those perceptions. Their study published recently in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development looked specifically at the influence of 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.
They measured self-perception of aging by having respondents say how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements such as,
- “Things keep getting worse as I get older,”
- “I have as much pep as I had last year,” and
- “As you get older, you are less useful.”
They measured optimism in a similar way, with respondents ranking their agreement with statements like “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 things like “A social person with a strong network of friends” and “A healthy, active person.” Examples of “feared” selves were “Chronically sick and in pain,” “Being dependent on others for my day-to-day needs” and “A cranky, angry old woman.”
Results showed that, as predicted, higher optimism was associated with more positive self-perception of aging. Both “hoped-for” self-efficacy and “feared” self-efficacy were also significantly associated with self- perception of aging, above and beyond optimism as a trait.
A major factor in how people see their own aging selves is internalizing “ageist” stereotypes, the researchers said. Examples of such stereotypes include assumptions that older adults are bad drivers, or suffer memory problems, or are unable to engage in physical activity anymore.
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. If you believe bad things are going to happen, over time that can erode your willingness or maybe even eventually your ability to engage in those behaviors that are going to keep them as healthy as they can be.
A way to mitigate negative stereotypes about aging is to promote intergenerational relationships. Older people can do some things better than young people do. Increasing opportunities for intergenerational relationships is one way we can make people more optimistic about aging.”
THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF AGING AND HUMAN DEVELOPMENT, December 28, 2020, “Are Thoughts About the Future Associated with Perceptions in the Present?: Optimism, Possible Selves, and Self- Perceptions of Aging,” by Shelbie G. Turner, Karen Hooker. © 2020 by SAGE Publications. All rights reserved.
To view or purchase this article, please visit: