Trinity researchers confirm you are only as old as you feel

Negative attitudes to ageing affect both physical and cognitive health in later years study finds

Research from Trinity College Dublin’s longitudinal study on ageing (Tilda) has found that negative attitudes to ageing affect both physical and cognitive health in later years. Photograph: Thinkstock

Research from Trinity College Dublin’s longitudinal study on ageing (Tilda) has found that negative attitudes to ageing affect both physical and cognitive health in later years. Photograph: Thinkstock

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It’s official. You’ re only as old as you feel.

Research from Trinity College Dublin’s longitudinal study on ageing (Tilda) has found that negative attitudes to ageing affect both physical and cognitive health in later years.

The study found that older adults with negative attitudes towards ageing had slower walking speed and worse cognitive abilities two years later, compared to older adults with more positive attitudes towards ageing.

This was true even after participants’ medications, mood, their life circumstances and other health changes that had occurred over the same two-year period were accounted for.

The study also found that negative attitudes towards ageing seemed to affect how different health conditions interacted.

Frail older adults are at risk of multiple health problems including worse cognition. In the Tilda sample frail participants with negative attitudes towards ageing had worse cognition compared to participants who were not frail. However frail participants with positive attitudes towards ageing had the same level of cognitive ability as their non-frail peers.

Participants with positive attitudes towards ageing were found to have improved cognitive ability.

Led by Professor Rose Anne Kenny at Trinity, Tilda has completed three waves of data collection from its nationally representative cohort of more than 8,000 people living in Ireland, aged 50 and over.

These latest findings have important implications for media, policymakers, practitioners and society more generally. Societal attitudes towards ageing are predominantly negative, the study found.

Common age-related stereotypes are that older adults are physically weak, forgetful, stubborn and selfish and there is widespread consensus about these attributes across different cultures and generations. These concepts of ageing are commonly understood “truths” about the ageing process but according to the World Health Organisation there is surprisingly little medical or psychological evidence to suggest that they apply to most older adults . The vast majority of older adults are not physically, cognitively or mentally impaired.

“Researchers and policy makers can work together to develop and implement societal-wide interventions to target attitudes and perhaps, ultimately, find novel ways of maintaining health in later life,” said Professor Kenny.

Lead researcher Dr Deirdre Robertson said the way we think about, talk about and write about ageing may have direct effects on health.

“Everyone will grow older and if negative attitudes towards ageing are carried throughout life they can have a detrimental, measurable effect on mental, physical and cognitive health,” she said.

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