It was 20 years ago that American researcher Dr Becca Levy said if a previously unidentified virus were found to diminish life expectancy by more than seven years, considerable effort would be devoted to identifying the cause and implementing a remedy.
That hit home when I read it recently because I have spent the past few years worrying about how a virus would impact my older parents. But Levy wasn’t talking about THAT virus. Levy – a professor of epidemiology at Yale University – was talking about Self Perceptions of Ageing (or SPA), or what we think about how we will grow old. If our views are mostly negative, this “virus” can be toxic, impact our quality of life and shorten our lives. Levy’s research revealed that having positive beliefs around ageing can increase our life span by seven and a half years.
Our views of ageing are a dynamic layering of experiences gathered over our lifetime. Some cultures revere their elders, while in many cultures we see older people portrayed as cranky or helpless. We internalise many anti-ageing and youth-obsessed messages where age is shown as something to fight against or camouflage or correct.
These negative internalised beliefs can be unsettling as older adults often feel the same on the inside, even when there are obvious signs of ageing on the outside, such as wrinkles and grey and thinning hair. We often don’t feel offended when we first encounter ageist messages as we are not yet aged, but we do internalise these messages. They only affect us personally as we inevitably (or hopefully) grow older and become part of this stereotyped and misrepresented demographic.
Such stereotyping can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are well-known examples of how the stereotyping of specific groups significantly affects outcomes – for example, girls are no good at maths or men are not suited to caring for children. You expose people to frail, lonely and unhealthy elderly stereotypes and they believe them, internalise them and become them. When we think negatively about our own ageing, it directly impacts our health outcomes as we are more likely to be lonely, anxious and depressed, see declines in stability, handwriting, memory and self-efficacy. We are less likely to seek out medical care.
As we grow older our social milieu can influence our awareness of age-related change, as our peers can be the yardstick by which we judge our own ageing. When it comes to our views of ageing, we are the company we keep – one person’s perspectives can predict the mental and physical health of their partner and inner circle over time. Research into the dynamic reciprocal exchange with our peers is critical as it could help us determine how influencing one person’s perceptions of ageing may affect the health and well-being of others around them.
The narrative around ageing needs to change at the societal and individual level. As a predictor of physical and psychological health outcomes, subjective age matters more than chronological age in our second half of life. We need to learn more to feel comfortable about growing older, which would help reframe the narrative so ageing does not equal decline.
The narrative around ageing needs to change at the societal and individual level. As a predictor of physical and psychological health outcomes, subjective age matters more than chronological age in our second half of life.
We are constantly reminded of what we lose as we age and receive fewer positive messages about what we gain as we grow old. For instance, cognitive decline is often assumed with ageing, although our older brains are remarkably flexible, often gaining renewed capacity to learn new things. In some cultures, older people are cherished vessels of wisdom and sought out for their knowledge, guidance and inspiration, as well as their understanding of important traditions.
If the Australian media focussed on reporting facts about our ageing population, that would help to dispel myths and caricatures. One myth I often come across among friends is that they assume they will “end up” in a nursing home. In fact, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, only 1 in 5 people above the age of 80 are in long-term residential care, and only 1 in 20 of those aged over 65.
Our self-perception of our own ageing drives our purpose and will to live – it is at the heart of our survival. Much could be gained by drawing on other cultures – especially Indigenous cultures – to inform our interventions and to shape more positive beliefs about ageing. Understanding more about the interventions we can make to increase our positive beliefs about ageing will help influence our own future health and well-being and that of those around us.
Image credit: Joanie Collette
Cohn-Schwartz, E., Segel-Karpas, D., & Ayalon, L. (2021). Longitudinal dyadic effects of aging self-perceptions on health. Journals of Gerontology; Psychological Sciences, 76(5), 900-909. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbaa0821
Gendron, T. L., Inker, J., & Welleford, E. A. (2018). A theory of relational ageism: a discourse analysis of the 2015 white house conference on aging. The Gerontologist, 58(2), 242-250. https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnw155
Levy, B. (2009). Stereotype embodiment: a psychosocial approach to aging. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(6), 332-336. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2009.01662.x
Levy, B. R., Slade, M. D. , Kunkel, S. R. & Kasl, S. V. . (2002). Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (2), 261-270.
Segel-Karpas, D., Cohn-Schwartz, E., & Ayalon, L. (2022). Self-perceptions of aging and depressive symptoms: the mediating role of loneliness. Aging and Mental Health, 26(7), 1495-1501. https://doi.org/10.1080/13607863.2021.1991275