“I’m getting old.” We hear this frequently from patients, family members, and even friends our age. “Getting old” has become a catch-all excuse for the physical and mental changes we experience in our lives. When we use aging as an explanation, we tend to minimize otherwise alarming symptoms – an enlarging blemish on the forehead that turns out to be invasive basal-cell carcinoma, an achy hip that turns out to be severe degenerative arthritis, the huffing and puffing when you climb a flight of stairs that turns out to be heart failure, and the use of electrical scooters at the grocery store that turns out to be nerve compression from spinal stenosis. People dismiss these signs as a normal process of aging and miss opportunities for early medical intervention.
We also use aging as a reason to accept limitations that may restrict our physical activities, social engagements and intellectual pursuits. Not going outside, gathering with friends, meeting new people, or learning new skills are a few examples. We stay in our shrinking comfort zones. The COVID-19 pandemic has further diminished our ability to interact, and many haven’t picked up where they left off two years ago.
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Our actions reflect the negative stereotypes of aging. We associate aging with physical infirmity, mental decline, and being sick. These beliefs are the result of ageism manifesting at both societal and individual levels. Our social institutions contain systemic bias against older people. Employers shun applicants above a certain age. Stores use digital interfaces for completing transactions that are unfriendly or unfamiliar to older folks. Youthfulness is praised while old age is portrayed as frail and senile in media and entertainment. The older people themselves absorb these negative views of aging in our culture, often as a result of lifelong indoctrination. Prejudice against the elderly takes root from a young age and grows stronger even as each one of us becomes a member of that discriminated group.
Ageism has detrimental physical and mental health consequences. A landmark study from the Yale School of Public Health found that for people older than 50, harboring negative beliefs about aging shortened their life expectancy by 7.5 years. Ageism is associated with increased risks of heart attacks, strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, reduced mobility and strength, and anxiety and depression. People who have negative self-perceptions of aging experience poor quality of life, reduced social engagement, and increased riskier behaviors (eg, unhealthy diet, medication non-compliance, alcohol drinking, and smoking). On the flip side, positive beliefs about aging lead to improved cognitive function, better management of chronic illnesses, and faster recovery from hospitalizations.
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Luckily, we can mitigate these adverse health outcomes associated with ageism by consciously correcting our beliefs and perceptions. Here are some strategies to nurture a positive attitude about aging:
- Don’t just think of aging as a process of inevitable decline; rather, focus on the things within your control and understand what you’re going through within the context of your own life.
- Actively engage in your community and social networks.
- Stay productive by contributing your experience and wisdom through volunteer work, babysitting grandchildren, or interacting with family and friends.
- Continue to be physically and mentally active by finding other like-minded people to share the experience with.
- Avoid the temptation to simply brush something off as “getting old.” Seek medical care if your body doesn’t feel right.
- Take advantage of medical advancements to maintain your physical capacity (eg, hearing aids, joint replacements). It’ll help you remain independent, strengthening your self-esteem and self-efficacy.
- Build mental fortitude in order to stay resilient when faced with the challenges created by illnesses, loss of loved ones, and changes in your ability.
- Stay optimistic and expect that events will resolve with the best possible outcome.
There will be 80 million people above the age of 65 in the US by the year 2040. Aging will be a central topic in not just public health and medicine for the foreseeable future, but in all aspects of our society. Our attitudes about aging and how we treat ourselves as we get older will directly influence our health outcomes and life satisfaction. Make a change today and your future self will appreciate it!
Qing Yang and Kevin Parker are a married couple and live in Springfield. Dr. Yang received her medical degree from Yale University School of Medicine and completed residency training at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is an anesthesiologist at HSHS Medical Group. Parker has helped formulate and administer public policy at various city and state governments around the country. He is formerly the group chief information officer for education with the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology. This column is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. The opinions are those of the writers and do not represent the views of their employers.