A PLACE TO LEARN ABOUT HOW YOUR MINDSET MATTERS
Welcome to Dr. Sterling's Age Pride Web Page!
The mission of the Age Pride Web site is to provide information and resources for understanding ageism and advocating for a different mindset about the aging process and older adults. Dr. Sterling starts this page with an answer to a reader question about health and happiness. Further below are links to, among other things, resources about ageism, attitudes and health, the psychology of retirement, and forgiveness.
It seems to me that it is an over-simplification to say that happy or optimistic people are healthier people. Could it be that people who have a better genetic inheritance for health would obviously have less health-related problems and would likely be happier people because of that? Which comes first, the good health or the happiness? -- Signed: Doubting Conventional Wisdom.
Thank you for writing! You pose a good question, given that we are in the midst of an era in which there is a strong emphasis on willpower, discipline, and personal responsibility. Blame it on the baby boomers, I suppose. More than any other generation, they tend to think that they can be as young as they feel. Older folks may dismiss that kind of thinking as "hogwash." They have already experienced the aging process, and they may often tell you that growing older is not that much fun.
The truth, however, is somewhere in between. You can't be as young as you feel, but research has found that ageist attitudes can influence how soon you might develop signs of frailty -- slower walk, decreased grip strength, weight loss, and easy exhaustion. In a study published in 2004, researchers reported their findings from following 1,600 Mexican-Americans aged 65 and older in the Galveston, Texas, for seven years. They found that older adults who had more positive attitudes were significantly less likely to develop signs of frailty. In other words, the more pessimistic you are about life and aging, the more rapidly you will decline physically.
In another study published in late 2004, researchers in North Carolina demonstrated that negative stereotypes about aging had a profound impact on memory tests. When older adults were exposed to negative words related to aging such as "cranky," "feeble," and "senile," they had a more difficult time with memory tests. However, their memory test performance was enhanced by pre-test exposure to positive words such as "accomplished," "dignified," and "knowledgeable."
"Ageism" is a belief system that stereotypes any age group, young or old, on the basis of so-called "age" issues. With respect to older adults, ageism is often manifested by beliefs that as you age you become more disabled, more prone to illness, less intelligent, less useful, less active, and less attractive. An example of negative ageism behavior might be an older person being called "cranky" when they are expressing a legitimate dislike, while a younger person might not be called cranky for the same statement of discontent.
Ageism is perpetuated in popular culture through such things as birthday cards which decry the advance of age, or through negative images of older people in advertisements and television programs. Institutions perpetuate ageism by not hiring or promoting older workers. Ageism is based on distorted or inaccurate information. In a sense, because our life expectancy has increased so quickly in the United States, our cultural beliefs are lagging way behind our biological advances.
Consider the issue of illness in older persons. Are they more sick and disabled than younger persons? Half of Americans think that poor health is a "very serious problem" for most people over age 65. Fact: 78% of those over age 65 are healthy. While more persons over 65 have chronic illnesses that limit their activity (43%) than do younger persons (10%), older adults have fewer acute illnesses, fewer injuries and fewer accidents. The list of distorted beliefs about older adults includes stereotypes about sexual behavior, ugliness, mental decline, mental illness, uselessness, poverty, depression, and isolation.
Counseling professionals have known for years that our beliefs influence us. In fact, they can influence us so strongly that we will often set things up so we can produce a result the supports our belief. It is a very strong human trait that influences us to interpret data to keep our beliefs. It is called "bias." Scientists try to counter their biases by doing double-blind studies, so they will have less of an opportunity to force research results to fit their preconceived theories.
I think the North Carolina and Texas studies help us to more clearly understand that our mindsets and beliefs about aging do influence how we age and can impact our physical health and mental functioning. We each have different biological inheritances. We each can maximize what we have been given by examining our mindsets and altering beliefs that may set us up for a physical decline before our time.
I hope this is helpful. For more information about ageism and aging concerns and issues, please see links posted further below. -- Best wishes, Dr. Ron.
Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 60 year-old General and Geriatric Psychiatrist with a private practice in Seattle. He invites you to e-mail him at with any questions about mental wellness or emotional, relationship, or aging concerns. He is the only person who reads e-mail sent to DrRon. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about DrRon and for resources related to senior mental health, please go to SeniorMentalHealth.org. The content offered through Mind Matters is for information only and is not intended for medical, psychiatric, or psychological diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard professional advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read in this column. Read our Disclaimer. If you wish to understand more about Dr. Sterling's potential biases in health care advocacy, please check his Conflicts of Interest Disclosure Statement
The "Positive Aging Act of 2004" was introduced by Representative Patrick Kennedy, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senator Susan Collins and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in a press conference on Capitol Hill on June 24, 2004. This bi-partisan legislation calls for improved mental health care among the senior population. Read more about this legislation:
How much of a detrimental psychological impact retirement has on any particular person has a lot to do with the circumstances of retirement. Is it forced? Is it due to a disability? Or, has it been planned? A forced retirement that is unexpected and unwanted, can result in feelings of hurt, resentment, anger, and jealousy, which will greatly complicate a retirement.
As much as we all more-or-less dream of retirement as a time of relaxation and no one telling us what to do, the reality of retirement can be feelings of loss, lower self-esteem, boredom, social isolation and, often, more complicated relationships with spouses who may not have seen so much of us while we were employed.
To read a short article about some psychological aspects of retirement or to find more information, please see the following links.
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RON STERLING, M.D.
General and Geriatric Psychiatry
Updated October 7, 2007
Copyright 2000-2007. Ron Sterling, M.D. All Rights Reserved.