Handling Surprises in Old Age

Your Perception of Aging Affects Your Health

The more comfortable you are with growing old, the better your health is likely to be. But it's not easy in the United States and many other western countries to resist the incessant drumbeat for the primacy of youth including such real daily headlines as this: The Secret to Staying Young and Being Happy.

Wrong as the “staying young” phrase is, it's that “being happy” part at the end that enrages me. According to the shaming aging merchants, it is not possible to be both old and happy.

The evidence that internalizing belief in such ageist rubbish will cut years off your life has been growing as I've reported here when new studies emerge.

Last week, Sharon Horesh Bergquist, an assistant professor of internal medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and a primary care physician at The Emory Clinic, wrote a good overview of the evidence titled 5 Powerful Benefits of “Pro-Aging” Thinking at cnn.com. A couple of excerpts:

”Being 'pro-aging,' or satisfied with your own aging, can make you adopt healthier behaviors, feel in control of how you age and even heighten your immune system. Being 'anti-aging,' or perceiving aging negatively, can do the opposite.”

Dr. Bergquist starts off with some results researchers at Yale and Harvard found in the now well-known Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement:

”They measured how self-perception of aging impacted survival over the course of 22.6 years. They found that participants who held a more positive attitude about their own aging - such as continuing to feel useful and happy - lived, on average, 7.5 years longer.”

Bergquist cites another important longitudinal study shows about how a positive attitude toward aging can boost memory in old people.

“According to The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, the longest-running study of memory and aging, expecting memory decline can actually contribute to memory loss over time.

“Over a 38-year period, participants 60 years of age and older who held more negative stereotypes of cognitive aging had a 30.2% greater decline in memory performance than those who held less negative stereotypes about memory and aging.”

Even a physician as enlightened as this one has her lapses as when she writes that “Looking and feeling young as you age begins with believing you can look and feel young as you age.”

If you have been around the blog for awhile, you know that I reject references to looking or feeling “young” because there is nothing wrong – or should not be - with being old.

When people like Dr. Bergquist fall in to that feeling-young-when-old trap, what they really mean wellbeing in old age and as she otherwise points one, one of the best ways to make that so is to believe there is nothing wrong with being old.

”That isn't always easy,” she writes. “Western cultural and religious roots of ageism are deeply entrenched in the Protestant work ethic and the American Dream, both of which value youth by defining personal worth in terms of active engagement in work...

“Start determining your aging prophecy today by celebrating and embracing each year, both for the triumphs and the hardships that it may bring.”

Dr. Bergquist's is the best synopsis of the research associated with healthy attitudes toward aging I've seen lately. You should read the whole thing – it's not long.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dan Gogerty: A Sea Cruise with Few Amenities but Plenty of Personality


I don't believe it's so much as feeling "young", but more of keeping curiosity and wonder alive in your daily life. I find many older people I have met become curmudgeonlly and reject so much that is going on in the world. I want to keep wonder and joy alive as long as I live.

There's no escape.........idolizing being young & looking young is everywhere........I'm looking for a nice log cabin in the woods to avoid the constant barrage re this whole issue.

Also we need more joy & joyous celebrations to enrich the lives of all, young & old. But is that seen anywhere these days except for the mostly "feel good" stuff about pets.......Some days I just want peace & quiet & not think about age/aging. Thanks Ronni for another provocative & informative blog. Dee :)

My tongue was in my cheek after I posted the first PP! :)Dee

I'm with Diane......

Whoever said, "You are, who you think you are, most of the time" must have been right!

I'm with Diane too. As for curmudgeons, these are celebrated on British t.v. with the programmes "Grumpy Old Men" and "Grumpy Old Women".

Changes in my abilities daily seem the most surprising...both mentally and physically. I had thought steady decline, and somehow I'd be able to be aware that a certain day I'd be more frail, have terrible memory. Nope, some days I still feel like 50 (I'm 72) and some days I feel like 90. But I'm proud of my actual mind and body, doing whatever comes today. It does keep me focused more in the moment and less the past and the future!

Thank you for yet another thought provoking post. I can only shake my head in wonder at those folks who do anything and everything to "stay young." They are fighting a battle they cannot win. The alternative to aging is death. I try to continue to learn...I hope to be a lifelong student. I also attempt to accept , even celebrate, my aging body. I also echo Diane----don't give up joy and wonder, no matter what your age.

I enjoy being old. People are so nice to me. I always thank them profusely for holding doors etc. and they seem to take a lot of pride in trying to make my day better.

There is no way you are not going to be old....Unless you die! So, if you can't stay young, have some fun being old.

Darlene is a couple of years older than I am (I'm 86)and we have a terrific time emailing cartoons and jokes back and forth that we know will make the other one laugh.

So,I really loved and enjoyed reading all the positive comments others have made here. Hurrah for our side!!!!

Thanks, Ronni for this helpful and positive post. I loved what Barbara Rogers said about the difference in how one can feel on different days!
I am trying to live in the present also since "I will not pass this way again".
I love having access to "aging" blogs that you provide. A great service!!
Thank you.

I agree that joy and wonder are very valuable, but I also will include having a curiosity about life. I have noticed that folks without a curious bent seemingly have little joy.

I hate to say the obvious but maybe these results are skewed. Maybe the people that have the most negative feelings about aging have those feelings because they in fact are experienceing the negative aspects of aging faster than the others. Maybe, the people with the worst expectations about meemory loss are already starting to notice a decline.

About five years ago, I was struck with the realization that aging wasn't anywhere near as bad as it's generally made out to be.

I haven't changed my mind. My health is good for someone with two metabolic diseases, one of which was caused by a treatment used in the 1970's which essentially destroyed my thyroid gland.

I write, participate in two Toastmasters clubs, exercise nearly every day, cook healthful food for myself and my husband (The Engineer) whom I married three years ago after a whirlwind 8-year courtship.

My main problem with aging is the absurd assumptions often make about me, based on my age and sex.

Heard any good jokes lately, Nancy? :-)

I have always believed in the power of positive thinking. Attitude makes a big difference in how people age. I don't know if it can be explained scientifically, but I have seen so much evidence of it in my life that I cannot discount it.

I wonder if there is a part of the brain that can be tapped (like releasing endorphins) when you think positively.

Another way of stating this is that elders can become a self fulfilling prophecy.

I know I will not live forever because "no one gets out of this world alive", but while I am here I am not going to waste time and energy on feeling sorry for myself because my life is becoming more limited.

Of course I'm happy with getting older; the only alternative is being dead! Sure, I wish I were still a svelte 135 lbs, a lot less wrinkled, stinkin' rich, and able to leap tall buildings, etc. But I'm still reasonably healthy, my brain still functions properly, and my day is my own. For now, at least, no complaints.

I don't mind being old. Too many people have been denied the experience.

Ronni - - Your 2nd paragraph, wherein you feel "enraged" by the "be happy" age-shaming merchants: We cannot just 'BE happy'. But we CAN do things in positive ways that will yield results which will make us happy. Or at least happier. An Adventure! That's what I'm on. Whether I'm playing volleyball, or a bit sick, (or hurt), I see 'getting thru this' as a challenge, and I actively look for new ways to get things done. It can be fun & rewarding. I'm 79. I delight in our close family. Taking academic classes keeps me vital, as well. "Happy" isn't hard to do, but 'satisfied' will work, too! Tim

Kudos to you, Tim Hay!

Thanks so much for this, Ronni! I have a happy life, and retirement has brought me time to do the things that really matter to me. But I have to--and do--fight the barrage of negative stereotype. Last night, I was driving in a hard rain, through a confusing split-off in the road,
and I did a stupid thing and found myself facing the wrong way in traffic. I didn't lose my head, pulled way to the side and waited, and righted myself, but the rest of the way home, i was thinking it was age that did it--could have been--but still. . . In bad moments, I feel like a sitting duck--and I'm pretty certain I'm succumbing to the negative stuff. I'm healthy as a horse, have not quite the stamina I used to have, but surely all I need, etc. I can't pretend that I don't see the dark side of aging, nor should I, but hear hear to not turning aging into a disease but to a potentially rich life season.

I agree with Fritzy Dean and Darlene.


Stay curious.

Believe in lifelong learning.

Keep busy.

Make every day count.

Do something you love.

Stay positive.

So far as we know, we come around here once, so make your once count.

Tim Hay...
It's hard to tell from your comment but it sounds like you might think I am enraged by old people who are happy.

Not what I said. What enrages me are people who say/believe and promote the idea that being old and happy are mutually exclusive - that only the young can be happy.

I don't expect this to be a popular comment. I understand that this is a "be glad we're old" blog, and I certainly agree that it beats the alternative (at least for now). I suppose SOMEBODY has to cheerlead for old age, and the only ones who will are those who are already there. Still, the reality is that most of us have lost our jobs and earning power (that just happened to me) and it's hard to feel "useful" in an achievement-oriented world. Some have lost their spouses or partners. Others have lost their health and ability to function. Still others have lost their memory. We've all lost our looks to one degree or another (although that's minor to most of us).

These are real losses, and no amount of positive thinking will change that. I'm not a "youth-at-all-costs" type. I've never had cosmetic surgery and I don't buy magic potions that promise what they can't deliver. I realize that whatever befalls us, we have to pick up the pieces and move on, but "happy" isn't the first adjective that comes to mind in describing old age (78) for myself at this point.

I totally recognize that I'm SO fortunate to still have my wonderful husband (who just turned 85) and that we're both in basically good health. That's HUGE and I appreciate it. I'm working on acceptance that I no longer have a job. That's about what I can manage for now.

I enjoy everything about being old except those cartoons friends email about how awful aging is. I love them (the friends) too much to tell them to stop, but enough already. I make an exception for Maxine.

Good and interesting comments.

To Elizabeth: this isn't a "be glad we're old" blog. It's about "exploring and learning about getting old" blog. Big difference to me.

Aging has differences and similarities for all of us. But to deny the strength of my years diminishes me.

I do not embrace everything that comes with age, but I learn so much here that helps me know who I am. And actually like who I am.

PS: I do honestly think the age I am, 69, is way better than being 13 and a freshman in high school!

Annie: I Agree that TGB IS often what you say it is. It's just that sometimes the relentless "accentuate the positive" just doesn't ring true for me. And I SO agree that I'd rather be the age I am than 13 and a freshman in high school (thanks for reminding me). I was teased and bullied all the way through HS, so I REALLY mean that!

Thanks Elizabeth! I do see what you mean, and Pollyanna doesn't ring true for me either.

I believe "happy" is truly over-rated and is such a buzz word. My daughter's mother-in-law asked me what it would take to make me happy and I told her nothing. After thinking about it for a day I told her that I enjoy many things; my inquisitive, critical mind, the arts, music, my books, my family, and every morning when I get out of bed I give thanks that I can move all of my limbs and that my thoughts are in order and that I can enjoy another day. My husband, who is the same age (73) has been in long term care for the past two years with Parkinson's, residual effects of an aneurysm, loss of executive skills and his sense of the temporal. Watching and participating in his losses, while it has been emotionally very painful, has encouraged me to enjoy life at this very moment. It has also made me realize that some of the things that we agonize over are so superficial, that life situation can change in a second and that we need to be mindful of where we are right now and thankful for what we do have. I do feel that today's "young" people will have major hurdles to jump over in the future in today's world and I AM really "happy" that I am 73~~~

Another vote for what Diane said!

This was a great post. Ones perception of aging does affect their health. Not saying that you can fight the hands of time, but by having that understanding of what your body is capable of doing (and how it can look) will save you a world of trouble down the line- from depression of not being able to “keep up with the times” to ankle injuries from wearing heels too high. With that being said appreciate your number of years being alive and remain active, within those means, to save yourself a doctor’s visit.


The comments to this entry are closed.