“God, I’m getting old.” How many times have you heard that from someone who’s obviously not an elderly person?
And even if they were, why does talk of aging, even if only jokingly, so often come with a tinge of antipathy?
The word “old” doesn’t necessarily have to connote something negative, but it doesn’t carry quite the same reverence when it’s used to describe seniors as it does for, say, vintage cars.
Research shows that harboring sour views toward aging could be bad for our brains.
Studies out of the Yale School of Public Health found that a negative outlook on growing old is a pretty strong predictor of Alzheimer’s disease — a common form of dementia that impairs memories, thinking, and behavior progressively over time.
The researchers looked at 158 participants in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, the longest running study of its kind in the country. The subjects were surveyed for their beliefs about aging in their 40s and, 25 years later, submitted themselves to a decade of annual brain scans.
According to the study, people who held more negative beliefs about aging showed a higher loss of volume in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s important for memory formation.
In another study, they inspected the brain autopsies of people who were also surveyed for their opinions on aging. They found that the brains of those who saw aging as a negative thing were more likely to contain buildup of protein plaques and tangles common with Alzheimer’s.
Brain gunk and shrinkage just from thinking a certain way? It all sounds pretty scary, but this is actually great news.
The research shows that protecting ourselves from Alzheimer’s could be a little more within our control than previously believed. It all comes down to stereotypes — specifically, which ones we buy into when it comes to aging.
Instead of associating old age with growing weak, slow, or stuck in the past, let’s focus on the upsides: not having anything to prove, liberation from the 9-to-5, senior discounts, and even having the occasional “senior moment” as an unquestioned pass on life’s trivialities and annoyances. Not to mention the wisdom we’ll have to share and the wonderful memories we’ll have accrued.
Plus, getting old doesn’t have to mean you stop being happy.
In fact, it can be even easier to be happy in your senior years. According to a 2011 poll, while all Americans’ happiness rises with the amount of time spent socializing, people 65 and older were more likely than younger Americans to stay in positive moods with less social time.
Beating negative stereotypes has to start early.
A 2012 study found that as children approach age 10, their worldviews are shaped more by their experiences than by what they’re taught. From ages 3-6, they’re absorbing the prejudices expressed all around them and beginning to apply those stereotypes in their own experiences.
So if what you want are kids who grow up to be open-minded, accepting of people’s differences, and, of course, poised for a lifetime of sharp thinking and good memories, then ditch your bad biases and light their way to positive thinking.