Healthy Body

A Little Optimistic Thinking About Aging Might Increase Your Healthspan by A Lot

Kara Jillian Brown

Photo: Getty Images / Flashpop
Aging is inevitable—but how you feel about aging is up to you. According to new research, feeling optimistic about aging, in general, allows you to have positive self-perceptions of your own aging. And when you’re optimistic about aging, you’re more likely to care for yourself and be able to enjoy your old age, says Karen Hooker, PhD, professor of social and behavioral health sciences at Oregon State University.

Dr. Hooker co-authored a study published in December 2020 in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development that examined how self-perceptions of aging were reflected in health outcomes. They found that when people thought positively about aging, in general, were more optimistic about how their lives could look in old age.

“What people read, see, and hear about later life affects their perceptions of old age, even when they’re young. And if they have negative stereotypes, they carry those with them throughout life, and eventually internalize the negativity,” says Shelbie Turner, MPH, co-author of the study and a PhD candidate at Oregon State University. “Then we set ourselves up for a self-fulfillment prophecy where we expect only loss and decline in old age, so are not motivated to engage in health behaviors that can prevent or delay negative aging consequences.”

Taking care of yourself now by doing things like refraining from smoking, eating a balanced diet, and exercising regularly will increase your healthspan, or the healthy number of years you live. With that in mind, Dr. Hooker says a great way to be less fearful of old age is to set healthy goals now.

“These images of self in the future are important for motivation, so the more clearly you can think about your possible selves and form an image of them in your mind, the more these overarching ‘big’ goals can drive your day-to-day behavior,” says Turner. “This can be very helpful in behavioral motivation because it becomes an affirmation of your identity.”

Breaking down the idea that aging is a bad thing can also help us be less fearful of aging. “As a society, we have created norms and expectations about how people act and behave at certain ages,” says Turner. “We stereotypically think of older adults as cognitively and physically frail—that they are unhealthy. When we think of ‘healthy people’ we often think of ‘younger people.’ As such, when an older adult reports feeling younger what they may be trying to actually say is that they feel healthier or livelier.”

One way to do this is to ensure young people are exposed to examples of older people living full lives. “I am particularly interested in using intergenerational relationships to help people realize old age is just as good as young age,” says Turner. “When you foster positive relationships between young and old, you quickly start to see young people’s perceptions of older adults—and their own older selves—change to a more positive light.”

So instead of dreading old age, embrace it and do what you can to set yourself up for an enjoyable time. “My wish is that more and more people become excited for their lives in old age,” says Turner. “Remember that being old is just as fun as being young!”

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