At a pool party this summer, Johnnie Cooper climbed onto the diving board, executed a perfect dive, and then joined in a lively game of water polo. The occasion? Your 90th birthday.
“I always looked forward to this age,” said Mrs. Cooper, who lives in Huntsville, Alabama, and is retired from the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command. “You don’t have a lot of the fights you used to have. There’s a lot more peace.”
Her enthusiasm for getting older may be part of the reason she lived such a long and rich life. Although the experience of aging is different for everyone, experts are increasingly concluding that having a positive mindset is associated with healthy aging.
A decades-long study of 660 people, published in 2002, showed that those with positive beliefs about aging lived seven and a half years longer than those who had a negative view about it.
Since then, research has found that a positive mindset about aging is associated with lower blood pressure, a generally longer and healthier life, and a reduced risk of developing dementia. Research also shows that people with a more positive perception of aging are more likely to take preventative health measures — like exercising — which, in turn, can help them live longer.
You can’t stop the march of time, but you don’t need to fear it. Here are some ways to help change your thinking.
Understand where your beliefs about age come from
From the grumpy neighbor to the uninformed Luddite, negative stereotypes about aging are everywhere. Accepting negative beliefs about aging can affect our view of the process — and our health, said Becca Levy, professor of epidemiology at Yale and author of “Breaking the Age Code: How Your Age Beliefs Determine How Long and Well You Live.” (Cracking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Age Determine How Long and How Well You Live.
A 2009 study, for example, found that people in their 30s who held negative stereotypes about aging were significantly more likely to have a cardiovascular problem later in life, such as a heart attack or stroke, than those with positive stereotypes. .
To change your negative beliefs about age, you first need to become more aware of them, Levy said. Try a week of “aging beliefs journaling,” in which you write down every depiction of an older person—whether in a movie, on social media, or in conversation. Then question whether this representation was negative or positive and whether the person could have been presented differently. Simply identifying the sources of your assumptions about aging can help you gain some distance from negative ideas.
“People can strengthen their positive beliefs about old age at any age,” Levy said. In a 2014 study, 100 adults — with an average age of 81 — were exposed to positive images of aging and showed both an improvement in their perception of aging and an improvement in physical function.
Find aging models
If you associate aging only with loss or limitation, “you’re not getting the full picture of what it means to grow old,” said Regina Koepp, a psychologist who specializes in aging. Instead, she recommends, “shift your attention—look for role models of aging, see who’s doing it well.”
This “doesn’t have to be a 90-year-old person diving off a diving board,” Koepp said. This could be someone who goes to a yoga class every week or who volunteers for a cause.
Levy recommends thinking about five older people who have done something you think is impressive or who have a quality you admire, whether it’s falling in love later in life, showing dedication to helping others, or maintaining a commitment to fitness.
Don’t confuse forced positivity with optimism
Research suggests that optimistic women are more likely to live past age 90 than less optimistic women, regardless of race or ethnicity. But thinking more positively about aging doesn’t mean ignoring real concerns with happy thoughts — or using phrases like “You haven’t aged!” as a compliment.
“Clichés don’t work — we’ve heard them, they’re trite, they’re insensitive,” said Melinda Ginne, 74, a psychologist who specializes in aging.
Instead, try to look at honest reality with optimism. If you feel discouraged because you don’t play tennis as well at age 70 as you used to, Ginne said, remember: “No, I may not play tennis like I did when I was 50, and I can only play for 10 minutes. But still I can play.”
Face your own fears about aging
To feel more positive about aging, Koepp recommends examining what concerns you have about the process and then reflecting on how concerning they really are.
For example, Koepp, 47, has had a problem with his left hip. “I say I’m old because I feel stiff and creaky,” she said. “But then I think, well, my right hip isn’t stiff and creaky, and it’s the same age.” The point is, while aging may be contributing to your hip pain, she said it’s not the only factor. “But we confuse age and disability, and I think that scares people,” she said.
Don’t dismiss the benefits
Also focus on what you are gaining. Research has shown, for example, that emotional well-being generally increases with age, and certain aspects of cognition, such as conflict resolution, often improve.
Over time, “we’re likely to develop more resilience,” Koepp said. Aging successfully doesn’t mean you won’t get sick, face loss or need care at some point, she said. And no one said changing any mindset is easy. But if you can, she added, it may allow you to see yourself more clearly “as a person with lived experience and wisdom” as you age.
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