Holding the belief that you can and will achieve a healthy, vital old age – and having a positive outlook in general – makes actually reaching that goal more likely for you, according to researchers at Oregon State University.
Past studies on aging have found that how people view themselves and their futures at middle age can predict a wide range of future health outcomes up to 40 years later, including cardiovascular events, memory and balance problems, hospitalizations, and even mortality.
“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,” said Karen Hooker, a professor of Gerontology and Family Studies at OSU and co-author of the study. “How we think about who we’re going to be in old age is very predictive of exactly how we will be.”
Because self-perceptions about aging are linked to so many major health outcomes, the OSU study focused on understanding what influences those perceptions. Their study looked specifically at two factors: a person’s self-efficacy, or their perceived ability to become the person they want to be in the future, and optimism as a general personality trait.
The researchers measured self-perceptions about the aging process by having study participants say how strongly they agreed or disagreed with negative aging-related statements, such as “Things keep getting worse as I get older,” and “As you get older, you are less useful.” They measured optimism in a similar way, with respondents ranking their agreement with statements like “I have as much energy as I had last year,” and “In uncertain times I usually expect the best.”
To measure self-efficacy, they compiled survey responses in which older adults listed two “hoped-for” future selves and two “feared” future selves, and ranked how capable they felt of becoming the person they hoped to be and avoiding their feared outcomes.
Results showed that, as predicted, higher optimism was associated with more positive self-perception of aging. Beyond having optimism as a trait, though, both “hoped-for” and “feared” self-efficacy were also significantly associated with the participants’ positive or negative views about their aging selves.
“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 said.