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March 09, 2016

How Positive Attitudes Can Improve Life for Older Adults

“Buying into old-age putdowns,” says an article in U.S. News, “is bad for you.”

The reality is, the language people use about aging can affect the health of older adults in a negative way. Meanwhile, “Shedding negative stereotypes and embracing positive attitudes,” the article continues, “can help make life better as you get older.”

Ironically, many of the putdowns come from well-intentioned people who would be surprised to hear they were making ageist comments. As explained by Tracey Gendron, assistant professor in the department of gerontology at Virginia Commonwealth University, these remarks subtly put older adults into the category of “other,” as a foil to what is preferred.

For example, when a waiter calls an older woman “young lady” or someone praises an older man for looking young or acting youthful, this paints youth as the preferred way to be, with aging being negative, as a default. Gendron suggests that, instead of calling someone “79 years young,” to call that person “energetic, healthy, lively, vital or engaged.”

Plus, a study by Gendron analyzed ageism in Tweets from students who were involved in senior mentoring. After each visit with an older adult, they were to Tweet their reactions; 12 percent showed age discrimination in language, often subtly and most likely well-intentioned.

Examples include:

  • Wow, he's in his 90s but sharp as tack.
  • What a sweet woman! I especially love her little winks. (#herecomestrouble)

How Does This Affect Health?

Becca Levy, associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale School of Public Health, has compiled multiple studies that connect negative ageism stereotypes to lower levels of health. Conversely, positive age stereotypes can boost how older people function.

One study, published in December 2015, showed that people who had previously expressed the highest degree of negativity about aging showed more brain changes connected with Alzheimer’s disease. More specifically, they’d lost more hippocampus volume in their brains, had more amyloid plaque buildup and showed more “tangles” around brain cells.

If this type of information interests you, be sure to read the rest of the U.S. News article, Ageism, Attitude and Health.

Overcoming Ageism

Although you can’t control how other people use language, there are ways that you can deal with age discrimination in a healthy and effective way. An article at EverydayHealth.com lists seven of them and we’ll highlight a few here.

First, you do have control over your own attitude, so be positive. “Relish the experience and wisdom that come with age and put them to good use.” Also, don’t let yourself be pushed around or left out of activities simply because you’re older. Engage in the world, stay active. “Live in the present, and look to the future.”

Remain as independent as you can and avoid learned helplessness where you assume that you can’t do something just because of your age. “You won’t lose those abilities if you continue to do for yourself what you can.”

Attend classes at the community college or gym with younger people – who often have the energy needed to motivate you. Plus, volunteer!

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