Attitudes to ageing

Is ageing all in the mind?

Is ageing a choice? A question of mind over matter? Can we think ourselves into a younger mindset? Clint Eastwood is now 91 and still working. When asked about his work ethic a few years back by singer-songwriter Toby Keith he said “I just get up every morning and go out. And I don’t let the old man in”. The quote inspired a song that Eastwood included in his film The Mule.

Of course there are physiological changes in our minds and bodies as we age but serious illness aside, there’s a host of evidence to suggest that a positive approach to ageing can help us to make the very most of our later years.

David Robson, author of The Expectation Effect: How your Mindset Can Transform Your Life published by Canongate on 6 January, wrote in The Observer “People who see the ageing process as a potential for personal growth tend to enjoy much better health into their 70s, 80s and 90s than people who associate ageing with helplessness and decline, differences that are reflected in their cells’ biological ageing and their overall life span.”

For the past 20 years or so, a large body of scientific work has provided evidence that personal views on ageing, such as age stereotypes and subjective ageing, can affect health outcomes in later life, but we need to better understand more about how different views on ageing affect different health outcomes. This was the subject of an academic study by Wurm et al in 2017 which looked at the existing research on ageing and health-related outcomes. What is clear is that age stereotypes and subjective ageing can be both positive and negative, but that negative views have historically been the most dominant. Which age stereotypes are experienced as a threat and how individuals experience ageing is continuously shaped by societal norms and values.

Many countries are currently experiencing an increase in the proportion of people aged 65 or older, and alarmingly this demographic change seems to be associated with an increasing negativity of age stereotypes. During the past few years, several teams of researchers have started to develop interventions aiming at changing views of ageing and these studies indicate that not only can views of ageing be intentionally changed, but also that such changes are associated with overall health improvement. Such advancements will have significant applied implications for ageing societies.

On an individual level, choosing to adopt an approach that acknowledges ageing but refuses to allow it limit us is an attractive proposition. Perhaps Mr Eastwood has shared a lesson that we can all learn from.

The Expectation Effect: How your Mindset Can Transform Your Life by David Robson, published by Canongate on 6 January 2021

Wurm S, Diehl M, Kornadt AE, Westerhof GJ, Wahl HW. How do views on aging affect health outcomes in adulthood and late life? Explanations for an established connection. Dev Rev. 2017;46:27-43. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2017.08.002

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