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WHAT DOES FEAR OF AGING MEAN?

Updated: Dec 27, 2023

When we fear aging, what are we really afraid of? The fear can stem from a lot of different anxieties.

WHAT IS AGEISM?


Ageism is not just one way. It’s not exclusively how others treat us as we age. The World Health Organization defines ageism as “the stereotypes (how we think), prejudice (how we feel) and discrimination (how we act) towards others or oneself based on age.” It’s the last half of this statement that can be the most damning. It’s easier to point fingers at how others treat us, it’s much harder to see how we may internalize negative associations of aging within ourselves.


ARE YOU FEARING REPLACEMENT AT WORK?


Ageism is real, present, and prevalent. It is estimated to cost the Canadian economy $56 billion annually in lost economic performance. Research has shown that at least 50% of adults have been found to hold moderate to highly ageist attitudes. Ageism can work both ways, it assumes that someone is either too young or too old to perform their job duties based exclusively on their age. Ageism when directed against older people is so pervasive in our culture that we may not even recognize it as discrimination or even notice it at all.

In a 2022 interview, Jennifer Schramm, senior policy advisor at the AARP Public Policy Institute, said “Age discrimination continues to be one of the leading drivers of long-term unemployment for individuals 50 years and greater”. Research conduct by the AARP has found that 65% of workers over the age of 55 say that they have experienced age-based discrimination at work and 58% of those surveyed believe that ageism became apparent starting at age 50.


AGEISM DOESN’T STOP AT THE OFFICE DOOR.


Internalizing ageism messages can also influence your overall health and wellbeing. “People who take in more negative age beliefs tend to show worse physical, cognitive, and mental health. But the good news is that those who are exposed to, or develop more positive age beliefs, tend to show benefits in physical, cognitive, and mental health,” said Becca Levy, PhD, professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health and of psychology at Yale University, uses a fact-checking approach for public awareness. In her recent book, Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live.


Age related health researchers and psychologists are using science to reframe societal beliefs towards aging. Levy takes aim at more than a dozen beliefs about getting older. “In every case, I found information that not only contradicted the negative stereotype but also highlighted a strength that comes with aging,” she said. “Take the stereotype that people become less creative as they get older. My research found a host of examples of artists and musicians who became both more creative and more creatively prolific later in life.”

We also looked the stereotype that all types of cognitive abilities inevitably worsen with age,” says Levy. “While It’s true that some cognitive skills, such as reaction times, may slow a bit over time, other functions remain robust and even improve”.


ARE YOU AFRAID OF LOSS OF ABILITY AND MOBILITY?


Some will have sheer bad luck. Some things totally suck. But for most of us, if we take the time now to build our bodies – feed it right and work out to build muscle and stamina – we will be mobile into our later years.


This is where the negative thoughts that we internalize about our own aging work against us. Negative age-related beliefs can negatively affect your health in many ways. If you dread getting older, you are more likely to feel rising levels of stress. We know stress is linked to higher levels of cortisol – the stress hormone. Cortisol can affect nearly every organ in the body (https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22187-cortisol):

  • Nervous system

  • Immune system

  • Cardiovascular system

  • Respiratory system

  • Musculoskeletal system

Levy’s research has shown that positive beliefs about aging protect against dementia, even among those with a high-risk gene (PLOS One, Vol. 13, No. 2, 2018). But the effects extend beyond dementia. She has also found that negative self-perceptions of aging are associated with a higher prevalence for all eight of the most expensive health conditions among Americans, which include heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders, and injuries.


WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO HAVE NEGATIVE INTERNAL THOUGHTS OF AGING?


Most of us are unaware of how pervasive our own internal thoughts and general culture are towards ageism. Common expressions such as “I’m too old to wear that”, “Anti-aging products and services”, “You look good for your age”, “You’re young at heart”, “Inside I feel 30 years younger”, “Birthday celebrations that make fun of getting older.” Referring to forgetfulness as a “Senior moment”. I could go on and on. And I can admit to doing all of these. It’s essential to remember that ageist attitudes can become “self-fulfilling”.


THE MESSAGE IS SIMPLE.


We need to take control of our thoughts around aging. People with a positive attitude towards aging live an average 7.5 years longer than people with negative beliefs about aging. (Levy BR, Slade MD, Kunkel SR, Kasl SV. Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2002;83(2):261-270.)


If you want to let your hair go grey, that is your prerogative. If you don’t, then that is also your prerogative. There is no right or wrong answer, just your answer. What is non-negotiable is your attitude and the steps you take to ensure your long-term health and vibrancy.



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