Not many generations ago, aging was considered a privilege, and those who lived the longest were considered to be important members of society and keepers of the wisdom necessary for survival.
Today, the opposite is true. Society subscribes to the “old is bad, young is good” mentality. Examples are everywhere – from the greeting card aisle to the 42.51 billion (USD) anti-aging industry. Whenever the underlying message is that old is bad, ageism is at work.
Ageism is defined as discrimination based on age, and can be directed at any age group, old or young (as Millennials can attest). It is often called the last socially acceptable form of discrimination. Spending a lifetime immersed in an ageist society is not without an impact: no one is immune to ageist thinking.
Two varieties of ageism exist: that which is imposed by others and that which we self-inflict. Most people get heavy doses of each, and both are tremendously harmful.
“At my age I shouldn’t….”
“People my age can’t….”
“It’s downhill from here.”
“I’m getting forgetful and it’s only going to get worse.”
Have these thoughts ever crossed your mind? They may seem harmless, yet research shows that how we think about aging has a profound impact on how we age.
In a 23-year-long study, older adults who reported more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with more negative self-perceptions.
Those with positive perceptions of aging also lived better, with less illness, better functional health, improved brain health, and increased psychological well-being, and tended to engage in more preventative health behaviors and physical activity – as compared to their counterparts who had negative perceptions.
How can our thoughts create such a dramatic increase in not only lifespan, but quality of life? Our thoughts create our feelings, our feelings, in turn, prompt action, and our actions produce results, for better or worse. In essence, our thoughts about aging become self-fulfilling prophecies.
For example, let’s say two women both break an ankle and need to spend some time in rehab. Nancy believes that this is the beginning of the end. “This is aging,” she thinks, “the downhill spiral.” Nancy gives only partial effort to rehab, becomes depressed, and never fully recovers.
Patty, on the other hand, decides to think of rehab as being sidelined only briefly. “This is an opportunity to dust off my Rosetta Stone and focus on learning French in between therapy sessions,” she thinks.
She decides that her goal is a trip to France, and with that in mind, she works hard, rehabs fully, and then seeks out a personal trainer to boost her total body strength and endurance. That summer, she poses proudly for a picture in front of the Eiffel tower.
Nancy and Patty found themselves in identical situations, but they chose their thoughts differently. It’s true that with time, life can throw its share of curveballs, but when we associate our circumstance exclusively with age, we place it outside of our control.
We buy into societal beliefs that old is bad. We relinquish control of our thoughts and default to thinking that doesn’t serve us.
About 70 % how we age physically is the result of lifestyle choices we make each day. Setting age aside offers an opportunity to examine our choices. It may be that your circumstance has little to do with chronological age and everything to do with that which is within your control.
What are your thoughts about aging? Is it synonymous with decline and dependence? Does it mean that the best years have already passed? Maybe you have already reached an age that your parents didn’t. Who are you if you’re not young anymore?
Or do you think of aging as a new opportunity to grow and become who you were always meant to be?
The great news is that we get to choose our thoughts. If we can see our circumstances (in this case, aging) as neutral, then we place ourselves in a position to choose our thoughts. We can succumb to the old is bad/young is good thinking so common in society, or we can choose to think differently.
We can buy into the stereotype that aging is all about decline or we can choose to believe the decades of research that prove aging is primarily about choice. We can resign ourselves to thinking that the good years are already behind us, or we can choose to believe that the best years are still ahead.
Spend a few minutes today downloading your thoughts about aging. Write them down. Notice which thoughts serve you, and which do not.
Examine your self-talk and consider whether you would speak to a friend in the same manner. Since many thoughts go unnoticed, make a bigger effort to eavesdrop on your thoughts each day.
If we can think any thought we want, on purpose, why not think thoughts that serve us, rather than thoughts that do not?
Be on alert for those thoughts that do not serve you. When they reoccur, as they very likely will, delete them immediately and replace them with thoughts that do serve you.
Also consider your thoughts about your chronological age. When you ask a child their age, they’ll often be extremely accurate, “I’m 6 and a half.”
I once asked my friend Ben his age, and he said, “In 18 months I’ll be 100.” What about those of us in between? When did we start making our age mean something bad? And more importantly, when will we stop?
If your chronological age makes you cringe, here’s an important truth: chronological age is not actually cringe-producing. Your age is a fact – simple math based on today’s date and the day you were born. What makes us cringe is what we think about our chronological age. We get to choose those thoughts, too.
To take an even bigger leap, what if you loved your age, at every age? It starts with rejecting the myths and knowing the research-based truths about aging. It means discovering the ageist beliefs playing on repeat in your mind and choosing new thoughts that serve you better.
Let’s start thinking on purpose those thoughts that serve us – especially about our age. The degree to which we choose to be indifferent about age, and even better, love our age at every age, will help us not only live longer and better, but begin to evolve back into a society in which aging is an honor.
How often do you feel discriminated against because of your age? What do you do in such situations? Have you noticed your own thought on the subject of aging? Do you think yourself old? Can you intentionally change your thoughts about aging? Please share in the comments below.
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Thank you for this uplifting article Teresa! It was exactly the right time for me to read this and remind myself of how much I want to move forward and seek solutions for an injury to my ribs, plus out of control blood pressure, YUCK! I’ve been working on lifestyle changes and you have given me more hope that making good choices and believing some changes are in order will help me be the active engaged person I was before my injury. It will take a little time and I’m saving your article for when I need a reminder that I can get there when these situations occur no matter my age. That’s very freeing. Hope you don’t mind but I’m sending you a virtual hug:)