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Can Bristol age positively?

4 August 2015

Guy Robertson, Director of Positive Ageing Associates, explores how negative attitudes to ageing can affect longevity and the quality of later life. This is part of a series of blogs, where key players in Bristol's health sector write about a health related subject of their choice. If you want to contribute, email zoe.trinder-widdess@bristolhealthpartners.org.uk.

Most of the advice about retirement focuses on the practical and social aspects – eg financial planning, diet, exercise, hobbies and volunteering. And there is no question that these things are important. But what most people don’t realise is that it is also vitally important to consider how we think about ageing and retirement. It turns out that how we think about these things can have a major impact on our wellbeing and even how long we live. In fact, as we will see in a moment, negative ideas about old age can reduce how long we live more than obesity, smoking, high cholesterol or even high blood pressure!

It all starts with some of the prevalent ideas in our society about ageing. In general getting older is viewed as a very undesirable thing. There is little if any recognition of some of the good things in later life, nor an appreciation of the value and experience of older people. This kind of ageism is pervasive. The majority (60 per cent) of older people in the UK agree that age discrimination exists in their daily lives[1].

The seriousness and indeed the life threatening nature of the impact of negative ageist attitudes, was shown by a piece of groundbreaking research published by Becca Levy and colleagues[2]. In a large scale study they established a strong causal link between the negative attitudes which people hold towards their own ageing process, and reduced lifespan. They were able to divide the people in the study into two groups depending on their answers to a number of questions about how they viewed ageing. One group was very negative about ageing; the other group held much more positive ideas about it. When they then looked at how long the people in each of these groups lived, they were astonished to find that the group with the positive ideas about ageing lived on average seven and a half years longer than those with negative ideas. This is a huge and statistically significant difference. Indeed, it is a bigger difference than the effects on longevity of addressing obesity, smoking, high cholesterol or high blood pressure, which only reduce lifespan by approximately four years.

When the researchers looked into what might cause this effect, they found that ageist attitudes about ageing affect the very will to live. In other words, they found that those with negative attitudes had a much weaker sense of ‘will to live’. This means that when hardships or illnesses struck they were much less resilient and therefore ended up in much poorer health.

The researchers pulled no punches in their summing up of their startling findings – “If a previously unidentified virus was found to diminish life expectancy by over seven years, considerable effort would probably be devoted to identifying the cause and implementing a remedy. In the present case, one of the likely causes is known: societally sanctioned denigration of the aged (ie ageism).”

We have to be particularly vigilant about negative ideas about ageing as they can ‘seep in through the skin’ and affect our inner worlds without us noticing. But how can we know this? Various research experiments have been conducted where the introduction of age stereotypes was conducted subliminally – without the awareness of the people concerned. Even when this is done the effect of these stereotypes on older people’s performance in a number of tasks is still pronounced. So ageist ideas don’t have to be consciously understood or ‘visible’ to have an impact.

There is an important issue for society arising from this research – we must try to tackle ageist ideas. But for the rest of us the results are much more personal and direct. If we want to increase the chances of living healthy and long lives, then we need to make sure that we begin to view our own ageing in much more positive terms. We need to begin to concentrate on the positive side of things – for example, greater happiness, increased wisdom, more freedom, opportunity to do the things we never had the time for when we were younger and the opportunity to pass on our knowledge and experience to younger people.

We are mind as well as body. We obviously need to look after our bodies in later life, but equally we need to pay attention to being more positive about our ideas about ourselves as we get older.

All of the above research provides two clear messages. Firstly, negative ideas about ageing (which people are mostly unaware of having internalised) can shorten life expectancy and limit health and well being in a number of other ways. But the second, more positive message is that if people can replace negative attitudes towards ageing with positive ones then their health and wellbeing and life expectancy should be able to be enhanced.

In Bristol, the forthcoming work by Bristol Ageing Better to make it a more ‘age friendly’ city will be crucial, as will the soon to be commissioned courses to help people to prepare for retirement.

For more information on positive ageing have a look at my book “How to age positively: a handbook for personal change in later life”, available at www.positiveageing.org.uk/book. For more information about Bristol Ageing Better go to www.bristolageingbetter.org.uk.

Guy Robertson
Director: Positive Ageing Associates

References

1. Age UK, One Voice: Shaping our ageing society. 2009.

2. Levy, B., et al., Longevity Increased by Positive Self-Perceptions of Aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2002. 83(2): p. 261-270.

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