A negative outlook towards ageing can take years of your life. But there are many reasons to be cheerful about getting old, says Margaret Jennings.
IF you were told your lifespan was being shortened by seven years, but that you could do something about that risk, would you reach out for the solution?
While smoking, being obese, having high cholesterol or high blood pressure are regularly trumpeted as being risks to longevity, they generally shorten our lives by about four years.
The bigger life-threatening impact comes from our thoughts — whether we feel positive or negative about growing old.
While that might come as a shock, ground-breaking research carried out by American researcher Becca Levy, professor of psychology at Yale University, found that those with a negative outlook towards their own ageing, died on average, seven-and-a-half years earlier than other people with a more positive view.
While that research was published in 2002 and has been supported by studies from other countries, the outcome from it — that how we feel about growing old hugely influences our overall wellbeing — tends to get lost amidst the other public health warnings around diet, exercise, alcohol intake, and smoking, all valid in their own right of course.
One man on a mission to change this is UK based Guy Robertson, who has developed a keen interest in positive psychology and mindfulness and runs courses to integrate this approach to promote the wellbeing of older people.
Robertson, aged 62, who has also headed up several national innovation and change programmes for the Department of Health around ageing says: “I began to realise that while there was a lot of practical advice on issues like finance and pension, health and exercise, what was completely missing was a lack of any thought being given to the emotional and psychological aspects of ageing.”
Many of us dread getting old, he tells Feelgood.
“Some people have a fundamentally optimistic disposition and are not so fazed by it, but there is certainly a huge level of fear and the biggest fear is of dementia.
"It’s very difficult to read any newspaper nowadays without some scare story about dementia and how everybody is going to end up with it, but actually the facts don’t bear that out.
"Even amongst the very old — 80 to 85 year olds — 86% of them will not be living with dementia. With only 14% of the very old living with dementia, the risks for the individual are much less than you would think from the press.”
Another myth he questions is that we get more miserable as we age.
“Consistently across the whole western world you see that the unhappiest time in people’s lives are between the ages of 45 and 50.
"After they get beyond 55 there is an exponential growth in happiness levels. If you look at the graph there is a huge upward turn, right up to about 80 but even after then, people’s levels never get below the 45 to 50.
"That is when questions are asked of large populations but within that, of course, there are people who have miserable times, who are depressed and lonely but on average happiness levels grow enormously after 55 and you wouldn’t know that from the normal press.”
Robertson draws from mindfulness, positive psychology and cognitive behavioural therapy in his courses.
“People overwhelmingly say these perspectives are life-changing. Just understanding that largely our thoughts produce our feelings, that it’s not the event but how we think about it and interpret it.
"So when something happens like a bereavement or an illness, that knowledge of how you think about it, affects how you feel, gives older people not a key to an easy pain-free life, but a key to having a little bit more control to how they respond to situations that come up.”
He has also written a book called How To Age Positively: a handbook for personal change in later life, which is an upbeat and practical guide to negotiating the psychological and emotional aspects of growing older.
In it he offers ten detailed steps to ageing positively, including exercises which get readers to question and change their attitudes. They build on reinforcing the message that we have control; that our thoughts and how we visualise our ageing selves have huge impact on how we spend our later years.
“So many people avoid thinking about ageing and bury their heads in the sand. Even some of my best friends complain about having another birthday,” says Robertson.
“I would not want to present later life with rose-coloured spectacles and getting older is very much associated with loss – people lose some of their functions and quite often they lose friends and partners, but that’s only one side of the story.
“Yes, some dreadful things happen but at the same time some fantastic things happen: general happiness, people are more liberated and have more time to do things they might have wanted to do when they were younger.
"What I’m really interested in doing is rectifying the balance; ageing has its bad points but we also need to recognise and celebrate its good points... It’s not what happens to you that is the crucial thing, but how you respond to it.”
“Beauty is ageless when worn with an air of confidence
— Style blogger Dorrie Jacobson, 82.
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