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I am old and from now on, everything will go downhill

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I am old and from now on, everything will go downhill Alena Darmel, Pexels

When we reach a certain age, we expect our body and mind to deteriorate. We count on becoming forgetful and on getting aches and pains all the time. But could some of this also be the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy? That you get what you think? And perhaps more importantly, can a different expectation, a different perspective positively support our body and mind?


Old Perspective: From the age of 50 'it's all downhill,' we expect a set decline of health and mind  


Science has been telling us for years that from middle age, we will find it harder to learn something new, such as playing the piano or a new language, our thinking will be less sharp, and we will struggle to remember things and concentrate; whilst our bodies will fall victim to all sorts of horrible ailments. ‘I just could not remember that person’s name last week,’ we say in horror, and whilst maybe our mind had just been preoccupied, we blame it on age. ‘My knees are really creaking these days, it must be my age,’ we say, but maybe, we have been sitting at our desk for too long. We say it to ourselves, we say it to others. We expect to become more and more helpless. We might not begin a new language, or expect there will be no more chances for a new kind of job to come our way ''at our age.'' And, we wait for our body and mind to decline. We just submit to the experience.

But what if this way of thinking, this kind of mindset, this expectation, is in itself actually having a negative effect on our health? If we keep saying and thinking that our body and mind will start to show faults and fall victim to some kind of decay, will some of this happen because we say and think it will? Rather than a focus on positive thinking, can we, by having a different expectation, grow older better?

Ageism: There's more to it

Some say that the negative stereotypes we have about older people play a large role not only in how we view ageing but also in our health. Ageism and its effect on health is considered a global challenge, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) too has found that 'discrimination and negative attitudes about ageing are bad for your health.' In particular, the WHO has found that 'ageism influences health through three pathways: psychological, behavioural and physiological.' All in all, there are many reports about ageism leading to 'significantly worse health outcomes,' and that it 'harms older adults' physical and mental health.’ 

Self-fulfilling, and it starts early

But this process starts early, it is being said. According to the WHO for example, 'negative age stereotypes predict detrimental brain changes decades later,' and researchers are finding that ideas around ageism (that an older person is weak, helpless and frail; and that the health of a middle-aged person is set to deteriorate), is already formed when we are children. Our tendency to simply expect negative things to happen to our mind and body as we reach middle age, is already formed when we are young, and will be negatively affecting our own health later. And so, the seed is planted already early in our life. 

Researchers talk about 'expectations regarding ageing (ERA)' as 'the beliefs that the persons have related to how well they will maintain their physical and cognitive health as they age (Sarkisian, Hays, Berry, & Mangione, 2002),' and since this ‘ERA’ is considered an indicator of how successfully someone expects to age, as it turns out, 'most older adults just do not expect to age successfully (Sarkisian, Hays, & Mangione, 2002)' at all.

This self-fulfilling prophecy effect as we age ourselves, is not a claim by just a few specific researchers, one search online finds many of them.

See for example these statements: 'Evidence has been accumulating on the effects of subjective ageing—that is, how individuals perceive their own ageing process—on health and survival in later life.' 'Research has shown that endorsement of negative stereotypes can transform into self-fulfilment of these stereotypes as we age (Levy, 2009). Levy (2003, 2009).' 'Negative attitudes and low expectations about ageing are related to worse cognitive, mental, and physical health outcomes in older adulthood (Breda & Watts, 2017; Levy et al., 2002; Lineweaver et al., 2009),' and 'these attitudes are often shaped early in life (Gilbert & Ricketts, 2008).'

Turning things around

But, what if we could turn things around? It is said we each have our own unique ‘subjective age,’ in which we feel younger or older than our real, or chronological age. So, if we think we are younger than we really are, or have a different expectation of ageing and our health, can the body follow suit?

When a local Dutch TV channel in the province of Gelderland documented the career of the creator of what is known as the first iconic ice cream parlour of the Netherlands, something interesting happened when his son Carlo stepped into a perfect replica of the 1930s parlour.

The replica had been created for a museum and it was so truthful, that as Carlo made his first tentative steps into what was effectively his past, he said that he literally felt a lot younger. He felt he was literally there, in that time and space. He since also told a local paper: "Every time I'm here, I have to take a break. I can feel it in my stomach. It's like going back in time, back to my childhood and parents."

His experience of feeling young may have been a bit short, it was the famous Counterclockwise Study by social psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer, that had already shown us in the 1950s how, by being in a space that reminds us of when we were young, we can ‘think ourselves young’ and that it has an effect on our health. When the group of elderly people that took part in the experiment stayed for a while in the house that mimicked their earlier lives, it was said they had begun to show improvements in their gait and other elements of their health.

Harvard Magazine for example reported in 2010 that in the subjects, ‘height, weight, gait, posture, hearing, vision—even their performance on intelligence tests’ had improved. In addition, ‘their joints were more flexible, their shoulders wider, their fingers not only more agile, but longer and less gnarled by arthritis.’

When a BBC programme that aired in 2010, did something similar to Dr. Langer's experiment, it was said similar results had been achieved. The participants lived in a kind of ‘time capsule’ house for a week, during which they ‘dressed in 1970s clothes, slept in replicas of their very own 70s bedrooms, watched television from that era, and talked about 1975 in the present tense,’ and when they were put through the same physical and psychological tests at the end as they had at the beginning of the experiment, their ‘memory, mood, flexibility, stamina and even eyesight had improved in almost all of them.’

Opening our minds, good for health?

"It made a compelling case for Ellen Langer's argument that opening our minds to what's possible, can lead to better health, whatever our age," wrote the creator of the programme Michael Mosley on the BBC site, in an article entitled 'Can you trick your ageing body into feeling younger?'. In the article, Mosely described how one participant, who had had a stroke and considered himself old:  "blossomed before our eyes." "By the end of the week," he continued: "his confidence was back and he showed remarkable improvement across a range of tests, including memory and stamina."

“It made a compelling case for Ellen Langer's argument that opening our minds to what's possible, can lead to better health, whatever our age"

Other perspectives

Most of us might fear a set decline in health and mind power from a certain age, but there are a range of other perspectives out there. 

Take the 'international learning community' The Taos Institute from the US for example, which argues there is a need to "challenge the longstanding view of ageing as decline." Its newsletter puts the focus on positive ageing, by moving from "repair and prevention" to, what it describes as "growth-enhancing activities," for a "different societal view on ageing." 

We already know that our mind has an effect on our body and health, and that this can be negative or positive. Looking at how we can use our mind for positive effect, for example, it is said that we can even think our muscles stronger without doing the actual work. Perhaps the time has come to change our expectations about how we age.

"Many cultures still maintain negative ideas about ageing, and if internalised these can act as a 'self-fulfilling prophecy' that greatly increases the odds of ill health and depression," writes Be Independent HomeCare from Dublin, Ireland too on its site. 

According to the website of the Australian Positive Psychology Institute, for example, a positive attitude towards ageing is vital, as "studies indicate that a positive attitude improves physical and mental health."

In essence, what the experiment of Dr, Langer already showed, the ageing process is "less fixed than most people think," and we can steer this process more than we think. "People who feel younger than their years, often actually are, in terms of how long they have left to live," wrote New Scientist on the topic.

According to Professor Nancy A. Pachana (Co-Director, Ageing Mind Initiative, School of Psychology, The University of Queensland), in this regard there are areas of improvement in psychology as a discipline: which, the Professor wrote in 2016: "needs to focus research and practice on wellness and adaptation in late life, including the concepts of ‘successful’ or ‘positive’ ageing (Bar-Tur & Malkinson, 2014; Hill, 2011)." 

When Breaking Perspectives caught up with Prof Pachana recently, and asked whether she believes this kind of approach in psychology as a discipline could help create a different expectation about the state of our mind and body as we get older, she replied: "Yes, I think it can, and it is a very POSITIVE approach to ageing well!"

According to Random House Books, what we can learn from Dr. Langer is that with "only subtle shifts in our thinking, in our language, and in our expectations, we can begin to change the ingrained behaviours that sap health, optimism, and vitality from our lives," and that Langer "challenges the idea that the limits we assume and impose on ourselves are real."

“People who feel younger than their years, often actually are, in terms of how long they have left to live"

Pexels, Laker

Something positive

Perhaps we can leave you with something very positive all together.

When we do another search online for different perspectives on the notion of how we age, we can come across a report by CNN for example, on how research now also reveals a number of ways in which the brain actually improves with age. In the article, there are examples that older people may have a greater capacity for empathy, because, the writer argues, empathy is learned. It is further suggested that an ageing brain can "better tease out patterns," and see the big picture; and that it is better able to anticipate problems and "reason things out."

When you think about it, it may be just a case of changing your perspective.

So maybe it’s not just about positive thinking or adopting a different mindset, but about having a different expectation, and next time we say to ourselves 'it must be my age,' we have the choice to think about how we can rephrase that and look at it differently.

About us

Brand new, international Life Mindstyle magazine, reflecting a variety of perspectives in different aspects of our daily lives. Are our perspectives our own? Are they good for us, for others, for the world? They might be, they might not be. Either way, wouldn't it be good to know? Be curious and see where it may take you. 

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