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Aging Well: How you view aging can impact your future

Aging Well

This biweekly column is sponsored by The Mather in Tysons, Virginia. You can take specific steps to improve your perceptions on aging, which in turn can bolster your health, according to Mather Institute.

How do you feel about your age?

Your response can have consequences for your health and happiness. That’s because studies have shown that our perceptions of aging can have an impact on our own current and future well-being.

“There is a large body of research that shows positive perceptions of aging — seeing later years as a time of continued growth and enjoyment — is associated with better health and stronger relationships later in life. In other words, our expectations of aging impact our behavior and our future outcomes,” says Jennifer Smith, PhD, director of research at Mather Institute. The Institute is the research arm of Mather, the parent organization of The Mather, a Life Plan Community coming to Tysons. The Institute is an award-winning resource for research and information about wellness, aging, trends in senior living and successful aging service innovations.

As part of its own research, the Institute referenced proven benefits of having a positive perception of aging:

  • Longevity: In a 23-year study, older adults who reported more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with more negative self-perceptions of aging.
  • Illness: In a study of 1,286 people (average age of 57), those who indicated that aging is a time of continued learning and development reported decreases (or slower increases) in physical illnesses six years later.
  • Functional Health: Older adults with more positive perceptions of aging report better future functional health, such as the ability to do household chores and climb stairs, compared to those with more negative perceptions of aging. 
  • Brain Health: Compared to people with more positive views of aging, people who endorsed more negative age stereotypes displayed greater signs of risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease when their brains were examined decades later. 
  • Psychological Well-Being: Older adults with more negative perceptions of aging reported greater increases in depressive symptoms three years later, but high levels of optimism helped protect against this effect.
  • Healthy Behaviors: Those with more positive perceptions of aging tend to engage in more preventive health behaviors and physical activity compared to those with more negative perceptions of aging.

Change Your Views

The good news is that, even if you’re not feeling very positive about aging, you can take steps to change your attitude and enjoy the health benefits above. All it takes is consciously focusing on appreciating positive experiences. Dr. Smith led a study in collaboration with Loyola University Chicago that revealed that people who took steps to savor their life lessons — reflecting on events in their past that led to knowledge that they wouldn’t want to give up — specifically “grew” their positive perceptions of aging.

You can try this on your own. Research has shown that practicing savoring, or increasing awareness, intensity, and duration of positive feelings, can boost your happiness and life satisfaction. Focusing this practice on positive reminiscence can affect perceptions of aging specifically.

To savor your life lessons, make time to reflect on a meaningful past experience, then write down what you learned from it. Take time to consider the wisdom you obtained, then identify how that wisdom has had a positive impact on your life. Repeat this exercise with other experiences from any time in your life. You can also tell family members or friends about some of your valuable life lessons, which is another means of savoring.

These research findings confirm that Aging Well can depend on your outlook — and luckily, each of us has the opportunity to control and change our perceptions and attitudes.

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