This study just revealed the secret to aging gracefully

A fascinating new study just released by Oregon State University is making a compelling case for all of us to take a more optimistic approach to growing old. Researchers say that if an individual believes and visualizes that they’ll be happy and healthy well into old age, they’re much more likely to experience that outcome. 

In short, if you believe that it’s inevitable that you’ll one day wake up to a world of debilitating aches and pains, declining mental cognition, and an isolated lifestyle, chances are that’s what’s going to happen. However, if you envision yourself aging gracefully and staying active and content throughout your elderly years, you’ll likely see that version of yourself become a reality one day.

“How we think about who we’re going to be in old age is very predictive of exactly how we will be,” says study co-author Shelbie Turner, a doctoral student in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences in a release.

Culturally, the idea that being old is no fun is a common trope. For decades, the elderly were depicted in cartoons, movies, and TV shows as grumpy, living alone, and leading a lifestyle devoid of pleasure. These findings, though, indicate such ideas are a self-fulfilling prophecy more than anything else. If someone spends their entire life believing that if they even make it to the age of 85 they’ll be miserable and routinely tell the neighborhood kids to get off their porch, it’s probably going to happen.

“Previous research has shown that people who have positive views of aging at 50 live 7.5 years longer, on average, than people who don’t,” says study co-author Karen Hooker, the Jo Anne Leonard Petersen Endowed Chair in Gerontology and Family Studies at OSU.

“Kids as young as 4 years old already have negative stereotypes about old people,” Hooker adds. “Then, of course, if you’re lucky enough to live to old age, they eventually apply to you.”

That earlier research referenced by Professor Hooker had found that how people think about themselves around the age of 50 usually has a big influence on health developments as much as 40 years later. 

For example, if Chris considers himself to be very sharp mentally at age 55, he’ll be less likely to experience a mental decline at age 70. On the other hand, if Chris is freaking out over every tiny detail he can’t remember at age 45, he may be increasing his odds of cognitive issues later in life by focusing and worrying about such problems so often. This trend was noted regarding several health areas including heart health, balance, will to live, and mortality.

So, it’s been established that self-perceptions regarding growing old can influence health outcomes. With that in mind, the authors of this new study set out to determine what factors influence those perceptions of the self. They decided to focus specifically on two elements: general optimism as a personality trait and self-efficacy associated with possible selves, which refers to how confident a person is about their ability to become the person they want to be.

To start, a group of participants’ self-perceptions about growing old was assessed by having subjects rate how strongly they agreed with a series of statements like “Things keep getting worse as I get older,” “I have as much pep as I had last year,” and “As you get older, you are less useful.”

Optimism among participants was measured similarly, by having subjects rate how much they agreed with sentences including “In uncertain times I usually expect the best.”

Finally, self-efficacy was measured by having each person write down two “hoped for” versions of their future self and two “feared” versions of their future self. Then, participants indicated how “capable” they felt they were of either achieving those “hoped for” outcomes or avoiding the “feared” future versions of themselves.

Examples of some “hoped for” versions include “A social person with a strong network of friends” and “A healthy, active person.” Conversely, common “feared” future outcomes were “Chronically sick and in pain,” “Being dependent on others for my day-to-day needs” and “A cranky, angry old woman.”

As study authors expected, people who scored higher in optimism rankings tended to think about growing old in a more positive light. Moreover, both forms of self-efficacy (hoped for, feared) were significantly associated with aging self-perception, even more so than optimism.

“People need to realize that some of the negative health consequences in later life might not be biologically driven. The mind and the body are all interwoven,” Hooker explains. “If you believe these bad things are going to happen, over time that can erode people’s willingness or maybe even eventually their ability to engage in those health behaviors that are going to keep them as healthy as they can be.”

We hear so often that our thoughts dictate our realities. Now, these findings suggest our thoughts and attitudes also influence our far-off futures. There’s plenty to not like about growing old, but that doesn’t mean you should assume the worst. 

Envision a happy retirement, and perhaps more importantly truly believe you can make it there one day, and you’ll already be on your way toward making it a reality.

The full study can be found here, published in the International Journal of Aging and Human Development.