A positive mindset around aging might do more than just make the process more enjoyable—it could protect against dementia as well. That’s important information for caregivers who witness both the good and the bad that comes with growing older.
By being proactive about which ideas are integrated as beliefs, caregivers may be able to bolster cognition against future memory decline, as psychologist and epidemiologist Becca Levy explained in her book, “Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well you Live”:
“Age beliefs can even act as a buffer against developing dementia in people who carry the dreaded Alzheimer’s gene,” she wrote.
How to identify your negative beliefs about aging
Negative beliefs can be challenging to spot because they tend to run in the background where they’re easy to miss. However, a good way to suss them out is by paying attention to negative thinking patterns.
All kinds of negative patterns can affect our mindset on aging, such as overgeneralizing—believing that one bad experience represents the rest of what’s coming. Likewise, catastrophizing is turning something small and likely meaningless into a huge deal, like the adage about making a mountain out of a molehill. All-or-nothing thinking – also known as black-and-white thinking – is when thoughts go to extremes of all good or all bad.
Negative thinking patterns can also be found when emotions are overwhelming or thoughts are allowed to run wild, so watch out for emotional reasoning—which is what happens when feelings are seen as proof of how bad something is. Ruminating over every possible outcome and planning for every possible situation (overthinking) are easy patterns to fall into as well.
“Should” statements may be harder to notice because the goal of this thought pattern is to motivate. Still, it’s important to recognize when these statements occur because they set expectations that result in feelings of inadequacy if they’re not met—which in turn can lead to negative feelings about aging.
Common negative beliefs about aging
These negative thinking patterns can lead to a lot of anxiety about the aging process. For example, overgeneralization might make you think you’re destined for health problems in the future because of an illness in the past or present, just like catastrophizing happens when a forgotten detail turns into overwhelming fears of inevitable dementia. These negative thinking patterns and their associated fears are often informed by stereotypes about seniors:
- Memory problems
- Chronic or serious illness
- Not being needed
- Not being able to drive
- Not being sexually active
- Financial problems
- Being a burden
However, negative stereotypes about aging don’t represent all seniors’ lived experiences. In fact, elderly people reported they had these experiences at a much lower rate than what the general public believed they did.
How can caregivers disrupt their negative patterns and beliefs?
Once you’ve recognized your own ingrained thinking patterns and negative beliefs about aging, it’s possible to disrupt such thoughts through patience, persistence and technique. Replacing negative beliefs with new, more positive ones is an effective way to rewire a healthier mindset. The easiest way to do this is by creating a mantra or affirmation and saying it silently whenever negative thoughts arise around aging. This technique is effective at interrupting negative thinking patterns and promoting mindfulness—which is imperative to cultivate a positive mindset. Here are a few affirmations to try out:
Affirmations for caregivers to cultivate a positive mindset about aging:
- “Growing older is a gift.”
- “I am aging gracefully.”
- “I appreciate the wisdom and memories that come with the years.”
- “Good health is mine to enjoy for a long time to come.”
General mindfulness is an excellent way to interrupt negative thinking patterns and beliefs. By being aware of what’s going through your head, you have more control over your beliefs. Mindfulness can also help with silencing that inner critic through positive self-talk or by repeating an affirmation. Meditation is another useful tool: The practice can help with calming frazzled nerves and releasing negative thoughts.
Some people may benefit from more active techniques like journaling, writing a gratitude list, exercising, focusing on a project or getting a change of scenery. It isn’t the action itself that matters, but rather the distraction that stops spiraling thoughts in their tracks. These methods may prove more difficult for caregivers who are responsible for a senior with immediate care needs, but they’re options to keep in mind when possible.
If an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then anticipating triggers is an excellent way to prevent negative thinking patterns from getting started in the first place. This can be particularly helpful if you’re triggered by the care itself. In which case it’s important to prepare mentally beforehand.
For couples where one spouse is the caregiver, the need for a positive image of aging is twofold, as partners can affect each other’s well-being. Research has shown that when a husband has negative views of aging, it can result in depression in his wife, whereas a wife’s negative beliefs were more likely to take a physical toll on her husband’s health.
…when a husband has negative views of aging, it can result in depression in his wife, whereas a wife’s negative beliefs were more likely to take a physical toll on her husband’s health.
So, how does a positive mindset decrease the risk of dementia?
“We’re told the same tired stories about how we should look, act and feel at our age,” said Maria Shriver, journalist and founder of the Women’s Alzheimer’s Movement. “It’s no surprise many of us focus on the negative ways that aging is going to change us.”
In fact, such pessimism comes with real consequences for cell health. Depression, hostility and a host of other negative thoughts can also cause premature cell death, resulting in early aging, worse health outcomes and cognitive decline.
Negative beliefs about aging have behavioral and psychological effects as well, as Levy explained:
“In an older person with negative views of aging, who as a result doesn’t exercise or stay intellectually engaged and experiences more stress, you might not see much regeneration; you might even see neuronal loss.”
Conversely, positive beliefs about aging encourage people to continue healthy lifestyles and behaviors, which are protective against dementia and Alzheimer’s.