Want to hold off dementia and live longer? Check your bias.

When you can’t remember where you put your keys or why you entered a room, do you attribute it to a having a ‘senior moment’?  Or when you feel you aren’t as agile as you used to be, or find you don’t bounce back from illness as quickly, do you assume it’s because you’re getting old?

If you automatically blame everything on age, you could be cutting years off your life and putting yourself at risk for dementia.

Not to oversimplify, but there is a growing body of research that is focused on how our attitude or mindset about aging impacts our health. Having a negative bias – associating aging primarily with decline or disability – can be directly linked to the onset of cognitive and physical decline, dementia, and even shortening your life.

Having a negative view of aging can be directly linked to the onset of cognitive and physical decline, dementia, and even shortening your life.

In one recent study (part of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging – America’s longest-running scientific study of human aging), scientists used both MRI brain scans and autopsies to determine how negative perceptions of aging impacted the brain. The scans indicated people with the most negative perceptions had dramatically greater shrinkage of the hippocampus – a key sign of dementia. The brain autopsies revealed that two other indicators of Alzheimer’s disease—amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles—were far more common in key regions of the brains of those who had equated aging with debility and decline.

What’s causing this to happen? One of the researchers, Becca Levy of the Yale School of Public Health, says scientists believe “it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society.”

It’s not surprising we internalize negative messages about aging. They are everywhere – think of birthday cards for anyone over 40, retirement ‘joke’ gifts, depictions of older people in advertising, news and social media or characters in TV, movies, and literature  – the bulk of them can hardly be considered positive.

Previous studies conducted by Levy and her colleagues showed people with negative outlooks about aging were less likely to eat healthy, exercise, follow instructions regarding medications, and even died younger – an average of 7.5 years before their counterparts.

We can turn this trend around by simply checking our bias toward aging.

This doesn’t mean denying the actual negative impacts of aging – some things do slow down and our physical abilities do change – but we don’t have to blindly accept the stereotypes about getting older that simply aren’t true. For example, that older people are automatically more depressed and lonely, sicker, less productive, or suffer memory loss and a decline in cognitive functions as they age, etc.

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, there is growing evidence that older adults are thriving and “that our moods, relationships and overall sense of well-being can actually improve with age, as can knowledge and certain types of intelligence.”

There is growing evidence that older adults are thriving and that our overall sense of well-being can actually improve with age.

It suggests people can overcome and resist the negative stereotypes and compensate for the effects of automatic ageism by taking these four steps:

  1. Understand the myths vs the facts: don’t blindly accept that ‘old’ equals ‘decline.’
  2. Recognize stereotypes in everyday life: become aware of your own unconscious bias and the age bias that is prevalent in your environment/media.
  3. Substitute positive for negative stereotypes: look for examples of older adults who don’t fit the stereotype and get to know people who model positive aging.
  4. Accept the aging process: hold a realistic view of both the positive and negative aspects of aging.

Could your attitude about aging be impacting your health? If you’d like to learn about your own unconscious age-bias, take Harvard University’s fascinating  Implicit Association Test which measures bias by gauging how quickly participants associate pleasant vs unpleasant words with young and old faces. And, if you want some help identifying and eliminating age bias, check out ChangingAging.org or Yo, is this ageist?

Simply adjusting your attitude toward aging could add years and quality to your life in retirement.

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