Mind Matters --April 2005
Written by Ron Sterling, M.D. and Published in Northwest Prime Time Magazine

Our Mindset Matters
by Ron Sterling, M.D. -- April 2005

    Dear Dr. Ron:

      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.

    Dear Doubting:

      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 allegedly 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-span has increased so quickly in the United States, the culture is lagging way behind the biology.

      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. We also know that it is a strong human trait to intepret data to keep our beliefs. This is called "bias." Scientists try to counter their biases by doing double-blind studies, so they will have less of an opportunity to make the results fit their theories.

      I think the studies that are noted in this column help us 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 decline before our time.

      I hope this is helpful. For more information about ageism and aging concerns and issues, please visit www.AgePride.org. -- Best wishes, Dr. Ron.

        Author Bio:

        Ron Sterling, M.D. is a 64 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 Dr. Ron. Please be assured that your questions and identities are completely confidential and protected. For more information about Dr. Ron 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

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