Don’t Be Afraid of Being ‘Old’

research finds that people who have a positive perception of aging live longer

Leslie Fijalkiewicz

A few weeks ago my friend Chuck was bemoaning the fact that he was having his 60th birthday.  He talked about “being old” and “feeling old” as though he had no control over what was happening to him. As a person who has spent her entire career working with old people, I struggled with this. Why do people allow a number to affect how they feel about themselves? 

Research conducted by Professor Becca Levy from the Yale School of Public Health shows that people with positive perceptions of aging live 7.5 years longer than those who don’t!

Some people might be totally offended by the fact that I used the phrase “old people” when referring to my career. That was entirely intentional. I’ve spent 30 years working in a field that is constantly using euphemisms, clichés and any number of other ways to avoid using the word “old.”  We use the terms “aged,” “mature,” “twilight” and “golden years,” and “experienced,” to name a few. Why do we need to avoid the word? 

Chuck was upset about the number 60. So I’ve decided to challenge Chuck and everyone else out there who has an issue with their age. Stop thinking about that number and think about this one: 7.5.

Research conducted by Professor Becca Levy from the Yale School of Public Health shows that people with positive perceptions of aging live 7.5 years longer than those who don’t! When I shared that number with my husband, his response was exactly what I expected: “So what! I don’t want to live another 7.5 years if my health is terrible, I lose my memory, or I can’t take care of myself!” Apparently, he needed more information.

The research also showed that people with positive perceptions of aging experienced a higher rate of recovery from illness and injury. Sure, getting older sometimes means our parts wear out and we become more susceptible to illness or injury. But having a positive view of aging means we get back on track faster so we can enjoy the things that are important to us. Basically, your health will be better.

The research also demonstrated that people who think positively about their age also have better brain performance and improved memory. Does this mean that people who love their age regardless of how many decades they have will never develop dementia? No, the research didn’t look into that, but what it did show is that people who think positively about aging are more likely to engage in activities that promote better health. Improving our health habits at any age can help reduce our risks for certain types of memory loss.

We all know someone who has been struggling to care for themselves as they’ve aged. The research also showed that people who have a positive perception of aging also have a greater sense of control over their lives and a greater will to live. Maybe they feel that way because they talk to their doctor about health problems. Maybe it’s because they get a flu shot, pursue programs that promote better health, get their blood pressure checked regularly, etc. 

I’m 52 and about six months away from the age my mom was when she died. She had a great outlook on life and despite the young age at which she died, I can say unequivocally that she lived at least 7.5 years longer because of that attitude. 

There are many ways we can keep a positive outlook on life. One of the ways I plan to keep a positive view of aging is by trying to keep a balance between learning from my past mistakes and loving life enough to possibly make a few more – but only the kind that amuse my grandkids and drive my daughters a little crazy!       

Leslie Fijalkiewicz is manager of the Aging & Disability Resource Center of Chippewa County.