Think yourself young
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Think yourself young

In June 2020, our post ‘Being Old is a Choice’, told how some people limit themselves by conventional thinking on age.  We followed this in February 2021 with ‘Die Young – as Late as Possible’.  In both posts we emphasised that, contrary to conventional thinking, individuals can have a direct effect on how they age.  

‘Extra Time’ by Camilla Cavendish is a fascinating, global, look at ageing.  She examines longevity in Japan, scientific breakthroughs and ‘wonder drugs’ in the USA, social conditions in Singapore.  She looks at the science of brain neuroplasticity and talks to an 82-yearold professor in London, who just happens to be an endurance cyclist.  She gets to understand how a good GP can help a patient start to lose weight in 20 seconds.  She quotes a genetics professor in the UK:

There is nothing pre-determined about aging.

More confirmation

In the Guardian on 2 January 2022, David Robson wrote:

Of all the claims I have investigated for my new book (The Expectation Effect: How your Mindset Can Transform Your Life) on the mind-body connection, the idea that our thoughts could shape our ageing and longevity was by far the most surprising. The science, however, turns out to be incredibly robust. “There’s just such a solid base of literature now,” says Professor Allyson Brothers at Colorado State University. “There are different labs in different countries using different measurements and different statistical approaches and yet the answer is always the same.

Think yourself young

One study, at the Yale School of Public Health, found that people with a more positive attitude lived on for 22.6 years on average after the study commenced. Those with poorer interpretations of ageing survived for just 15 years. The report concludes:

Any proposals (to improve health) ought to remain secondary to what should be the long-term goal of stereotype research and ameliorating the harmful effects of negative self-stereotypes of ageing.

Recent findings suggest that age beliefs may also play a key role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Tracking 4,765 participants over four years, researchers found that positive expectations of ageing halved the risk of developing the disease.

For many scientists, the link between age beliefs and long-term health and longevity is beyond doubt. “It’s now very well established,” says Dr David Weiss, who studies the psychology of ageing at Martin-Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in Germany. And it has critical implications for people of all generations.

Institutional ageism

Our culture abounds with messages that reinforce damaging age beliefs.  The World Health Organisation is clear that ageism is a global challengeMedical News Todaywrites:

Ageism is a systemic form of oppression against people of specific age groups. It affects older adults most severely but can also impact young people. It is based on prejudice, such as the idea that all older adults are unintelligent or uncooperative, or that young adults are not worth taking seriously. Ageism is widespread in healthcare, which is especially harmful since older people are more likely to need medical care as they age. This leads to discrimination, lower quality care, and preventable illness and disability. Because most people age, ageism is a form of inequity that affects everybody.

Ageism comes in many forms

Ageism in the workplace include refusing to hire people over or under a certain age or asking for someone’s age at a job interview when it is not relevant to the work.  In personal relationships, examples include treating family members as though they are invisible, unintelligent, or expendable based on their age, or making ageist jokes that imply someone is less valuable or less worthy of respect, based on their age. 

However, some bodies of opinion still believe that there are reasonable grounds for certain aspects of age-related policies.  In the recent debate about over 70’s and COVID for example, the British Medical Journal says:

Even fit older people show poorer immune responses than their younger selves in the face of infection. The speed of the covid-19 pandemic doesn’t allow us to assess each person over 70 for individual risk—and the government has made a pragmatic decision. We need to put ego aside here and do what’s in the national interest.

This appears to reinforce the validity of at least one ageist policy and belief.

Not so

But in a strongly worded response, Michael Craig Watson, Trustee, Institute of Health Promotion and Education and Dr John Lloyd, Honorary Vice President, Institute of Health Promotion and Education reply:

Restrictions instigated in order to protect people should be risk-related rather than purely age-related. Over 70s are 15% of the UK population and are the most diverse age group in our society. A person’s age should not become the sole criterion for isolation or treatment. For example, a 55-year-old with asthma and who is obese may be more vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus than a healthy 75-year-old who regularly takes part in energetic exercise.

Among others, the writers refer to a paper published by The National Library of Medicine:

Societally-transmitted negative stereotypes of aging can weaken elderly people’s will to live.

Whether a government is justified or not in imposing a blanket ageist policy is not the issue.  Most national policies (and laws) are generalised.  Citizens respect them if they can see at least some merit in them, even if they are not entirely ‘fair’.  And, too, some ageist policies (travel discounts, heating allowances and others) benefit older people to the exclusion of younger ones.  

Time to act

We cannot control government policy.  Nor can we single-handedly alter public and media attitudes.  Most people are brought up to expect certain outcomes at certain ages in their lives.  We cannot control any of this.  What we can control is our reaction to these (false) influences.  ‘Will I let other people determine how I feel about my age and my life?’

We know, sadly, all too many people succumb to a set of beliefs that determines how they should act as they get older.   Because they believe what people say – that they are ‘old’ – this is how they become.  

Almost every day however, science reminds us that ignoring these negative stereotypes and enjoying the benefits of the inevitable process of getting older, will improve our quality of life.  What is more, our lives will be significantly, and happily, longer.

All we need to do is to take control of our beliefs and our lives…

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