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How Well You Age Might Be Linked to Late Life Expectations

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Key Takeaways

  • Self-perceptions of aging could play a major role in maintaining health as you get older, a recent study suggests.
  • Two particularly valuable traits are optimism and self-efficacy, since they focus on the future in a positive way.

Your attitude and beliefs about getting older may play a significant role in your risk of developing major health conditions associated with aging, according to a recent study in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development.

Researchers looked at the perceptions of aging among 244 middle-aged and older adults, focusing on optimism and self-efficacy. Both of those are geared toward the future, according to study co-author Karen Hooker, PhD, in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University.

For instance, optimism is about expecting good things will happen and self-efficacy is related to believing in your control over those events. Researchers found a considerable difference in potential health outcomes between those who felt pessimistic and had less self-efficacy and those who felt optimistic and had more.

Bright Outlook, Better Health

In the study, participants ranged in age from 52-90, and their survey answers were based on degree of agreement or disagreement with statements such as:

  • Things keep getting worse as I get older.
  • I have as much pep as I had last year.
  • As you get older, you are less useful.
  • I am as happy now as I was when I was younger.
  • If something can go wrong for me, it will.
  • I hardly ever expect things to go my way.
  • I’m always optimistic about my future.
  • Overall, I expect more good things to happen me to than bad.

One caveat to the study, Hooker says, is that it’s preliminary, which means it didn’t follow the participants over time—ideally, over decades—to fully explore how their thoughts about the future shaped their health outcomes.

That said, researchers did find that higher optimism was associated with a more positive self-perception of aging, which has been shown in previous studies to lead to better health overall.

As Old As You Feel

In past research of people around 50 years old, those asked what their health will be like decades later tended to be correct, even about mortality. Hooker states they tend to have better outcomes with aging-related issues such as:

“Previous research has shown that people who have positive views of aging at 50 live, on average, over seven years longer than those who don’t,” says Hooker. “Age is not just a biological construct, but also a social one. People can feel younger or older than their chronological age, and this can make a difference for their health.”

Especially useful, she adds, is balking at stereotypes about aging. For example, beliefs about poor driving ability, memory problems, and limited mobility or flexibility can all become self-fulfilling prophecies, causing older people to become more sedentary or fearful of new experiences.

Michelle Ogunwole, MD

Being optimistic is a habit that many people need to develop over time, by pursuing activities that make them feel healthier and stronger.

— Michelle Ogunwole, MD

From Perception to Action

For many older people, the type of negative stereotypes that surround aging can cause them to feel powerless in terms of taking charge of their health, which significantly reduces self-efficacy, says Michelle Ogunwole, MD, specialist in internal medicine and research fellow at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

With her older patients, she usually suggests setting goals as a first step in taking control of health, since it emphasizes a brighter, more optimistic view toward the future. For example, she suggests, goals that increase self-efficacy and lead to strong health outcomes include:

  • Walking every day, with an aim of doing a certain mileage within a specific timeframe.
  • Playing on the floor with grandkids or doing activities with them outside.
  • Trying new, healthy recipes at least once a week.
  • Reducing medication usage with a doctor’s help.
  • Volunteering more often.
  • Having a video chat or call with family members every Sunday.
  • Embracing a new hobby like yoga, art, music, or dance.

Efforts like these make people look forward to the future and give them the type of purpose that’s been tied to better quality of life, says Ogunwole.

“There are always some issues and conditions that are out of your control, and that will happen no matter what you do,” she adds. “But even with those, your outlook will play a major part in how you handle them. Being optimistic is a habit that many people need to develop over time, by pursuing activities that make them feel healthier and stronger.”

What This Means For You

No matter what your age, taking steps to become more optimistic and feel in control of your health could have a major impact as you get older, including reducing major health risks.

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  1. Turner, S., & Hooker, K. Are thoughts about the future associated with perceptions in the present?: Optimism, possible selves, and self-perceptions of aging. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development. Published December 28, 2020. doi:10.1177/0091415020981883

  2. Benyamini, Y., Burns, E. Views on aging: older adults’ self-perceptions of age and of healthEur J Ageing 17, 477–487 (2020). doi:10.1007/s10433-019-00528-8

  3. Tkatch R, Musich S, MacLeod S, Kraemer S, Hawkins K, Wicker ER, Armstrong DG, A qualitative study to examine older adults' perceptions of health: Keys to aging successfully, Geriatric Nursing, Volume 38, Issue 6, 2017, Pages 485-490,

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