Do you want to grow old? Most people answer yes. A qualified yes, that is: “As long as I’ve got my health.” Long life looks attractive when it’s uncoupled from cognitive and physical decline. It’s a lot cheaper too: illness is expensive.
What shapes our health as we age? Genetics and behavior, of course, although genes account for only about 30% of the picture. Another important, and undervalued, factor is attitude. The beliefs we’ve assimilated about the nature and value of old age—how ageist we are, in other words—make a real difference. A growing body of evidence shows that these attitudes have an actual, measurable, physical effect on how we age.
Anti-aging prejudices are drummed into Americans from early childhood on. Older people in children’s books are wicked or weird. Advertisements advise us that beauty means looking like a teenager. Television depicts olders as grouches or simpletons. Kids absorb these messages without even realizing it, because the messages aren’t aimed at them. This lays the groundwork for thinking of “oldness” as inferior to youth, and thinking of older people as “other” than themselves. That’s how prejudice gets a foothold.
Over a lifetime, these beliefs and opinions become fixed. Steps slow and confidence wanes, simply because a subliminal script says it’s time to totter. We seldom challenge that script, even when experience tells a different story and often before actual decline sets in. We blame every ache or memory lapse on aging, instead of acknowledging that we forgot stuff in high school too, or that our other knee is doing fine even though it’s gone just as many miles.
Cultural expectations have a powerful effect. It’s the same reason 15-year-old girls excel on science tests in countries where girls aren’t “supposed” to be bad at math. People with more positive feelings about aging do better on memory tests and are more confident. They can walk faster and are more likely to recover fully from severe disability. They actually live longer—an average of seven and a half years—and they also live better. They’re able to contribute more to society, and they cost less.
We need a lot more research into the biology of aging and into genuine diseases of late life, like arthritis and Parkinson’s. Many other conditions, like diabetes and high blood pressure, get their start in midlife, or even in childhood. People with positive views of what it means to grow old take better care of themselves all the way along.
We also need to distinguish between problems of biology (disease) from problems created by the society that we live in. Abundant research shows that people are happiest at the beginning and the ends of their lives—the U-shaped happiness curve—even in cultures that disrespect and discriminate against older people, like the US. Suppose we rewrote the script that equates aging with decline? Silenced it entirely? Re-envisioned late life as a time not just of loss but also as a time of growth and purpose? People would find their way to that happiness a lot earlier. They’d miss out on a lot of unnecessary dread. It would enrich the rest of their lives—and society as a whole.
How about a national campaign to raise awareness of ageism and the damage it does? Imagine the benefits of overturning ageist stereotypes before they distort our sense of self and shorten our steps. Imagine how much a powerful counter-narrative would do to increase not just lifespan but “healthspan.”
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