Do you find yourself thinking about your age or have feelings that you’re getting old? Perhaps you keep telling yourself you like the way things are now—or maybe have thoughts about how things will get worse as you age.
But those thoughts could be impacting your physical health and well-being. In fact, a recent study published in the Journals of Gerontology suggests people who believe their body and mind will deteriorate as they get older may actually experience symptoms of their body physically breaking down.
The study revealed that older adults who have a drearier outlook about aging tended to claim poor physical health symptoms more often on days they were experiencing stress compared to less stressful days.
“People who perceive their aging to be more negative have an added vulnerability to stress compared to people who perceive their aging to be better,” Dakota Witzel, PhD candidate, lead researcher at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, told Seasons. “For example, a person who feels worse about their aging may feel a higher stress response to an argument with their spouse, resulting in more health problems reported.”
How the study was carried out
Researchers used responses from 105 Oregon adults between the ages of 52 to 88. Over 100 days, participants completed surveys about stressful experiences and their stress levels, along with physical symptoms, such as aches, pains, upset stomach, fatigue and shortness of breath.
Participants were asked to agree or disagree to questions and statements like:
- Things keep getting worse as I get older.
- Things are better than I thought they would be.
- I am as happy as when I was younger.
- Today, I felt difficulties were piling up so high I could not overcome them.
Based on the responses, Witzel said the study determined whether an individual had “good” or “bad” self-perceptions of aging. However, she cautioned that not wanting to get old could be rooted in aging stereotypes and impact people’s perceptions of aging—but aren’t necessarily a negative outlook.
“For example, someone may explain that they don’t want to get old because they simply like their life the way it is now and don’t want it to change, or they may not want to get old because they are afraid they won’t age successfully or well,” Witzel said.
Perceptions of aging and impacts on physical health
After analyzing participant responses, the researchers found on average those who reported higher levels of stress were related to worse self-perceptions of aging and worse physical health symptoms, while those with positive self-perceptions of aging were related to fewer health symptoms.
In addition, the authors state that on days when individuals with more negative thoughts of aging reported more stress than normal, they also reported almost three times more physical health symptoms, compared to those with positive thoughts of aging.
Witzel explained those positive self-perceptions had a protective effect on the body.
“When stressful events do occur, older adults are at a physiological disadvantage, so they may be similarly impacted by stressful events compared to younger adults. How we perceive ourselves aging could have multiple pathways by which it impacts our health,” she said. “It is a plausible hypothesis that feeling that we aren’t doing well in terms of aging could make us emotionally distressed and could also impact our behavior, such as withdrawing socially or stop exercising.”
However, Witzel said more research is needed to determine if a connection exists between good or bad self-perceptions of aging and a person’s mental health.
Contributing factors to feelings of aging
What exactly influences a person’s perceptions of aging? Witzel said some factors include the interactions people have with others in their lives. If parents or grandparents had a positive or optimistic outlook as they grew older, for example, that could have an influence on how you perceive growing older.
Witzel said the media also plays a role:
“The media often portrays aging in a negative light and creates stereotypes about what it means to age,” she said. “We internalize these messages just like we would with other types of stereotypes.”
Despite the findings, Witzel believes there are two ways to change someone’s perceptions of aging, especially if the association is negative. One way is a “bottom-up” approach, which refers to an individual making efforts to change. This could mean making conscious efforts to form positive images of self in later life.
“One way this can happen is through forming ‘hoped-for possible selves’ that then serve as powerful motivators for our daily activities to enact those possible selves,” Witzel said.
The second way is through a “top-down” approach, which refers to making cultural messages about aging more positive. She said that can be made possible through national movements to get the media to reframe aging in its messaging about later life.
The researchers note the study was limited in its sample population. Because respondents to the survey were predominantly white, female and well-educated, the evidence for this group of people may not necessarily apply or look the same for everyone.
“I would hesitate to say that without a doubt we could apply these findings to other groups of people,” she said. “I would say that this knowledge could potentially be applied, but with caution and the acknowledgment that more study is needed.”