The way we view growing older can influence how we age

The Tilda study shows negative stereotypes of ageing threaten the health of older people

Elders are healthier and wealthier than ever before. Why not celebrate longer life?

Elders are healthier and wealthier than ever before. Why not celebrate longer life?

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What does getting older mean to you? Being over the hill or raring to climb the next one? Believe it or not what you think about ageing can make quite a difference not only to how well you age but how long you live.

Sceptical? Well consider that our brains pilot our lives and that what we think or believe can influence our bodies quite profoundly. It really is a case of mind over matter. One of the most extraordinary examples of this is a story about the placebo effect which occurred during the second World War.

When Allied forces launched an attack in Italy at Anzio, American forces became trapped there. Henry Beecher was the young doctor in charge of treating casualties in a field hospital. Given the scale of the carnage he ran out of morphine and in an attempt to reassure the wounded before operating he gave soldiers salt water injections instead of morphine. Amazingly, patients were able to bear the agony of their procedures as though they had been anaesthetised. Later, Beecher wrote up his findings in a paper titled the Powerful Placebo as proof of the mind body connection.

Positive attitudes

And there is proof too, of the way in which we view growing older, either positively or negatively can influence how we age. One of the biggest factors according to the findings of Tilda, the (Trinity-based) Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing, is that negative stereotypes of ageing threaten the health of older people. The study found that older people with negative attitudes to ageing had slower walking speeds and worse cognitive abilities than those with positive attitudes. In other words, those who believe in the negative effects of aging come to experience them.

Another study involving 600 older individuals in Ohio found that participants who had a positive self-perception of ageing lived longer – on average an amazing 7.5 years longer than those with a bleaker view of what it means to grow old.

Your general attitude to life can play a part too, depending on whether you are the type who sees the glass as half full or half empty. A study which followed a group of nuns in the US found that whether the sisters had a positive disposition or a negative one affected their longevity, 90 per cent of the nuns with a sunny outlook were alive at 85 as opposed to only 34 per cent of those with a gloomier outlook.

The reason? In a nutshell, optimists generally have an easier time of it as they believe they will cope with life’s challenges while pessimists feel less able to cope and are therefore more stressed which affects body chemistry causing inflammation and weakening their immunity to disease.

Marianne Heron.
Marianne Heron.

It’s not possible to slow the clock for chronological age, but the good news is that individuals can have a considerable effect on their biological age. There are plenty of things that contribute to how well older people age but one of the really big important intangibles is having a purpose in life. It’s that reason that gets you out of bed in the morning or to put it more simply the “why” and more especially a why which uses people’s signature skills. A study published in Psychological Science found that having a sense of purpose reduces the risk of mortality in older people, in other words they lived longer and were healthier.

Populations in the Western World are ageing, both because of the remarkable gain in longevity amounting to several decades over the last century (and let’s not forget the demographic shift is also a dearth of births due to plummeting fertility rates). Those over 65 will soon account for 20 per cent of the populations in the Western world. This shift is invariably greeted with headlines moaning about the rising cost of pensions and elder health care.

This is a dysfunctional narrative.

High time for a rethink

Elders are healthier and wealthier (50 per cent of consumer spending in the US is by the over 50s) than ever before. Why not celebrate longer life, change our attitudes, stop regarding older people as frail and incompetent and ensure that age is emboldened, that older people live life to the full included and involved in society? Age may be just a three-letter word but add another three- letter word to it and a confusing picture emerges. As a frame of reference’ the term old age is full of contradictions. It’s high time for a rethink about old age, the way we define it the way we perceive it and especially the way we treat old people. It has taken the tragic loss of so many of the elderly in care homes to bring to bring the issues around old age sharply into focus.

When does old age officially start anyway?

Our pensionable age is one way to define this, for the majority the State old age pension starts at 66 and was due to start at 67 next year. The WHO consider 60, 65 or pensionable age to be the start of old age in the Western world but is that now out of date at a time when people are living longer than ever before? Life expectancy was 30 years less than it is now at 82 when the old age pension was first introduced here in 1909 for over 70s. Longevity is stretching by three years every decade while the majority of those born now can expect to be centenarians.

Attitudes to age and retirement can seem more than a little old fashioned in the light of longevity. Just think about it, if Hollywood icon Kirk Douglas who turned 103 at the end of 2019 had retired at 65 he would have spent 38 years in retirement or almost half an average lifetime. At least he could afford to retire.

The subject came sharply into focus when pensions and pensionable age became one of the surprise top voter concerns on the doorsteps after health and homes during the February 2020 general election. The fuse which ignited the row was the anomaly where pensioners retired at 65 suffer the indignity of having have to apply for job seekers allowance until they reach pensionable age at 66. Much heat but little reasoned debate was generated as political parties offered to turn back the clock and return pensionable age – currently 66 and due to rise to 67 next year and now deferred pending the deliberations of the Pension Commission – back to 65.

But these promises ignore the big issues around age.

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