Thoughts about growing old remain tucked away in the corners of my mind. There are fears about developing serious health issues and becoming a burden to my family, but there are also visions of shedding bad habits while watching my children grow into adults and enjoying those golden years with my wife.
Based on a recent Oregon State University study, it’s the latter of these two visions that should be the dominant force. Apparently, the longevity of my life could depend on it.
The study’s co-authors 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.
“How we think about who we’re going to be in old age is very predictive of exactly how we will be,” said Shelbie Turner, one of those co-authors who is a doctoral student in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences.
Previous studies on aging 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.
“Previous research has shown that people who have positive views of aging at 50 live 7.5 years longer, on average, than people who don’t,” said Karen Hooker, co-author of the study and the Jo Anne Leonard Petersen Endowed Chair in gerontology and family studies at OSU.
For myself, fears of aging became real just in the past four or five years. I’m married to a woman younger than me and we have two small children that creates this uneasiness that they could lose their dad during childhood. In 2016, I survived a serious health issue in the form of a pulmonary embolism and you wonder if this could happen again. My 81-year-old father has been battling a myriad of health issues and we have the same body type, even the same walk.
OSU’s Hooker and Turner wanted to understand what influences self-perceptions of aging that are linked to so many major health outcomes. Their study 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.
The researchers 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” … “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.
“Kids as young as 4 years old already have negative stereotypes about old people,” Hooker said. “Then, of course, if you’re lucky enough to live to old age, they eventually apply to you.”
Those stereotypes get reinforced every time an older adult forgets something and jokes, “Another senior moment!” But the researchers say these thought patterns can do real harm.
“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,” Hooker said. “If you believe these bad things are going to happen, over time that can erode people’s willingness or maybe even eventually their ability to engage in those health behaviors that are going to keep them as healthy as they can be.”
A way to mitigate those negative stereotypes about aging is to promote intergenerational relationships, so younger people can see older adults enjoying happy, healthy lives.
“The more you’re around older people, the more you realize that it’s not all bad,” Turner said. “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.”
So, the wife and kids, past health issues and battles that my father is experiencing shouldn’t overtake my visions of the future. It’s true, my wife is younger than me but we had this discussion long ago about her pros and cons of marrying an older man. Based on the outcome, you can guess that most of those were positive and it’s comforting to know that she is setting us up for future success on many levels.
As for the children, I’ve joked with people that I’ll probably be steadying myself with a walker by the time they graduate high school. I hope that’s not the case but those types of thoughts do serve as motivation to take better care of myself. I’m confident that I’ll be around to experience those types of milestones.
The pulmonary embolism was a scary couple of days in my life but it makes you realize how important it is to take note of any health-related changes and not be afraid to go to the doctor. There are no guarantees but being scared of unknowns is not something to dwell on.
Finally, my dad has those health issues in his old age, but that doesn’t mean that’s going to be my path. Despite our physical similarities, we actually have lived very different lives. He smoked for decades and that certainly must’ve led to some of his health complications. He was born with only one kidney and to the best of my knowledge, I have two. He has always had lower circulatory issues to the degree that his legs would turn black and blue after standing for many hours at his job. I do most of my work sitting at a desk, which may not be much better, but at least my legs are never discolored.
To be honest, my outlook on my future self as I reach my 70s and 80s probably could improve. But this OSU study creates a sense of optimism that if I believe I’m capable of being a reasonably healthy man, I’ll be in a good place to soak in those remaining years.
(Brad Fuqua is publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He can be reached at [email protected]).