Age and Attitude

How you think about aging impacts how you age. Contrary to popular belief, studies show it’s not all downhill after 50.
Dr. Boardman’s science-backed wellness guide.

By Dr. Samantha Boardman

Surely you have seen the meme with smoking-hot Jennifer Lopez next to matronly Golden Girl Rue McClanahan, with the caption: “Jennifer Lopez is 50 years old, which is the same age Rue McClanahan was when she began playing Blanche on The Golden Girls.”

While looking like JLo is not a realistic option for mere mortals, the meme (plus a big birthday at the beginning of the year) got me thinking about how our beliefs about aging affect how we actually age.

Many think of getting older as synonymous with decline—a progressive worsening of physical and cognitive functioning along with reduced quality of life. Studies show that this negative view is far from the truth. Contrary to the stereotypes that tell us it’s all downhill after 50, getting older is, in fact, associated with higher well-being and better psychosocial functioning. Most people become more responsible, more agreeable, and less neurotic with age. This is known as “the maturity principle.” Despite the stereotypes portrayed in the movie Grumpy Old Men, people tend to get nicer, more productive and to become greater contributors to society in their old age. We also get better at regulating our emotions, and experience fewer negative emotions and enjoy more positive ones. In other words, we are like fine wine, we get better with time.

The key is focusing on what age gives us, not what it takes away. People with more positive attitudes about growing old tend to live longer and healthier lives than those with negative thoughts about aging, according to research.

A study of nearly 14,000 adults over age 50, co-authored by experts at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, found that the people who had the highest satisfaction with aging had a 43 percent lower risk of dying from any cause over a four-year period compared with those who were the least satisfied. The study also found that people more satisfied with the aging process had a lower risk for conditions such as diabetes, stroke, cancer, and heart disease; had better cognitive functioning; were more likely to engage in physical activity and less likely to have trouble sleeping; were less lonely and depressed; and were more optimistic, with a greater sense of purpose.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer explored the power of the link between mindsets and aging in her famous Counterclockwise study. In 1981, she bussed a group of elderly men in their 70s and 80s up to a New England hotel that was retrofitted to look like a hotel would have looked more than 20 years earlier. It was as though they had stepped into a time capsule—the food, the magazines, the music, even the television programs were authentically 1959. The intention wasn’t to invoke nostalgia for the good old days; it was to recreate the good old days. The men were told to act as though it were 1959.

The results were astonishing. After only one week, the men were more physically fit and flexible. Hearing and memory improved. People who saw photos of them judged them to be younger. Perhaps most astonishing was finding that their fingers were longer: Because their arthritis had lessened, they were able to extend their fingers farther. Dr. Langer’s experiment literally turned back time.

A new book, Breaking the Age Code, by Becca Levy, furthers the argument about the link between aging and attitude. Levy found that the single most important factor in determining the longevity of participants in her research was mindset: “More important than gender, income, social background, loneliness or functional health was how people thought about and approached the idea of old age. Age beliefs, it turns out, can steal or add nearly eight years to your life. In other words, these beliefs don’t just live in our heads. For better or worse, those mental images that are the product of our cultural diets, whether it’s the shows we watch, the things we read, or the jokes we laugh at, become scripts we end up acting out.”

So thank you, JLo, for expanding our idea about what middle age and beyond can be.