I have long been bothered by the attitudes around aging in the US. All too often, I hear clients tell me that they don’t think they have any control over some of the health changes coming their way. They’ve seen negative images in the media, and heard negative stereotypes about age related health issues for so long that they can’t see any other perspective.
But I know from research on “blue zones” around the world, that aging gracefully, without the myriad health issues we see here in the US, is possible.
I was reading some interesting articles the other day about how attitudes on aging impact health outcomes. I am a firm believer in the idea “As we think, so goes our life,” so I wasn’t really surprised by the findings detailed in these articles. It makes so much sense to me — if you believe that your age determines your health, you might miss all the factors that you have so much control over. And if you aren’t paying attention to the whole picture, your health most certainly will suffer.
Let’s explore the impact that beliefs about age can have on some specific health issues, and then I’ll give you some tips on shifting your attitudes to live your best life, whatever your age!
Ageism and the Impact of Beliefs on Health in Older Adults
That article I came across last week talked a lot about mind-body research, which closely examines the way our attitudes and beliefs – as individuals and as a society – impact our bodies. Aging is of particular interest to many in this field, as the number of adults in the US population over the age of 65 continues to increase.
A report expected to be produced in the next few months by the World Health Organization will focus on ageism (discrimination against individuals based on advanced age) and will also detail the ways ageist attitudes impacts the health and well being of older adults.
Becca Levy, a psychologist, has spent her career researching the links between negative attitudes and health outcomes like walking speed, a greater risk of developing brain changes that lead to Alzheimer’s disease, and even shorter life span in older adults. But there’s good news too — Levy’s research has also shown that simple interventions – such as subliminal exposure to age-positive words, brings physical improvements in older people, much like those produced by a regular exercise program.
That means that if we can change the conversation around aging in America, we may also change some of the chronic health issues that cost billions of Medicare dollars every year.
Other research on attitudes on aging reveals that older adults who hold positive beliefs about aging are likelier to care for themselves better, and exhibit positive health behaviors. This also makes sense to me – when you feel like you have control over your life, rather than believing that nothing you do will make a difference, you have far more motivation to take those positive steps.
Age-Related Misconceptions on Health Issues
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common misconceptions I hear in my practice from older women regarding their health. Then I’ll give you some tips on changing your perspective and developing positive attitudes that may keep you healthy longer.
Weight Gain in Menopause is Inevitable
Out of all the age related complaints I hear in my practice, frustration around weight gain is the most common. Unfortunately, I also hear a lot of hopelessness about this issue as well. Women come to me thinking there’s nothing they can do about perimenopausal or menopausal weight gain, and resigned to carrying around several extra pounds for the rest of their lives. They are so excited when I show them how wrong they are!
I always tell them that weight gain, like any physical changes to your body, is a symptom. It’s an indication that something is out of balance. And it’s NEVER too late to address imbalances and get yourself back on track.
Heart Health Diminishes with Age
While it’s true that older adults have a higher incidence of heart disease in the US, it’s not at all true that you can’t do anything to boost your heart health once you reach a certain age. And the psychological attitudes you hold might make a big difference.
Research has suggested that attitudes – whether negative or positive – may impact risk of cardiovascular disease in a number of ways. These include the health behaviors an individual adopts, the stress that results from certain attitudes, and lack of attention to proper therapy or prevention methods. Some research has shown that treatment of certain psychological processes results in better cardiovascular health.
There are still plenty of questions to be answered around the connection between attitudes and heart health, but it makes sense to me that if you believe you have some control, you will take the right steps to keep your heart healthy and strong.
Mobility Will Be More Limited as You Age
I have a friend, Tanya, whose 73 year old mother constantly comments on how her age has slowed her down. She had hip replacement surgery in her mid-60s, and has been fearful ever since. She often comments that she can’t dance anymore, or will never be able to do things she used to love because of those surgeries. Tanya said she takes such careful, slow steps that she appears much older than she actually is.
Another friend, Lucy, has an 85 year old mother who also had hip replacement surgery when she was younger. She believed that the reason for having this surgery was to help her continue doing the things she loved – including dancing regularly. She worked hard during her recovery period, closely following the directions of her physical therapist. Now, though she’s 12 years older than Tanya’s mother, she continues to dance, walk for exercise, and move freely and easily through her daily routines.
Of course there are individual differences that impact mobility – but I truly believe that perspective plays a large role in how mobile older adults can be. One study I came across showed that fear of moving outdoors significantly increased the risk of developing self-reported difficulties in walking distances of both .5 and 2 kilometers. This illustrates what an impact negative perceptions and attitudes can have.
Cognitive Decline is to Be Expected as You Age
I get frustrated when I hear older adults joking about “senior moments” when they forget words, lose track of objects, or can’t seem to concentrate. It’s as if they’re saying these cognitive changes are just part of getting older, and there’s nothing they can do about it.
While there are certainly changes in the brain as we age, there is a lot you can do to keep your mind focused and sharp – including having positive attitudes around aging! A 2018 study at the Yale School of Public Health found that older people with a gene variant that is one of the strongest risk factors for developing dementia who had positive beliefs about aging were almost half as likely to develop the disease as participants with the same gene variant and negative age beliefs.
Other research has shown that invoking negative age stereotypes impacts performance on cognitive testing in older adults. We know that these negative stereotypes are pervasive in our society, so how can we diminish their impact? One of my favorite phrases these days is “knowledge is power.” When you recognize that negative attitudes can impact your health, you’re much more likely to do what you can to flip your internal script towards the positive.
Below are some tips to help you do just that.
5 Tips to Strengthen Your Positive Beliefs About Aging!
1. Eat Right, Sleep Well, and Move More.
It may not seem like this has anything to do with attitude or beliefs, but trust me when I say proper nutrition, quality sleep, and regular exercise make a huge difference in mood and attitude.
These are all areas within your personal control, so they’re a great place to begin! Choose organic foods, especially fresh vegetables in a range of vibrant colors, to get the nutrients your body needs. Establish soothing bedtime routines, and protect your sleep time by removing distractions – especially electronics – from your bedroom. Make a point to move frequently throughout the day, even if it’s just to stand and stretch.
2. Shift Your Perceptions.
It’s amazing how much change can result from a simple shift in the way you see things. An article I read recently talked about positive physical changes that resulted simply by educating hotel maids about how much exercise their jobs entailed.
That’s a powerful example of how changing perception can change health. I urge you to begin “pushing the pause button” when you notice negative thoughts taking over, and looking for a positive spin. This may be tough at first, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes.
3. Practice Gratitude Regularly.
Research demonstrates that gratitude has a positive impact on attitudes and perceptions. A gratitude journal is a great way to begin consciously recognizing all the blessings in your life.
I also like to try to find something to be grateful for in any difficult situation I am facing. If I’m stuck in traffic, for example, I tell myself “I’m grateful that I have this car to get me where I need to go.” I find that the more I practice gratitude for the small challenges, the easier it is to do when faced with something more serious, like an illness or financial setback.
4. Engage in Emotional Healing.
I often see women who are stuck in trauma from the past. All that old hurt can have a huge physical impact on your body, so I urge women to find a program or technique that works for them to help release their pain. Many clients have had great success in trying Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) or a program like the Hoffman Process. This can be very difficult work, so I urge you to seek out a trusted professional to help you through the process.
5. Reduce Stress to Calm Your Brain.
When you are under stress (and who isn’t these days?) your brain is on constant high-alert. This takes a big physical toll on the body. When your body is under assault and symptoms like chronic pain, fatigue, intestinal issues, and headaches are constant, it can be really difficult to maintain a positive attitude.
Additionally, stress relief often means finding something that brings you joy. Joy releases endorphins – natural mood boosters! Take the time every single day to do something just for you – even if you can only find ten minutes.
You Have the Power to Control Your Attitudes – and Boost Your Physical Health!
I spend a lot of time talking to women about personal power. I want them to see how much their attitudes and perceptions can change their lives!
Weight, mobility, cognitive function, gastrointestinal issues, fatigue, and aches and pains are all symptoms I hear a lot about, especially from older clients.
The most important message I can send is that these symptoms are NOT an inevitable result of getting older. They’re a signal that something needs to change – and it’s up to you to take the steps you need to create that change. YOU are in control of your attitudes, your body, and your life!
Reviewed by Dr. Mark Menolascino, MD