Grow bolder, not older

We need to grow bolder, not older.

Our negative ageist stereotypes have an adverse effect on how we age.

Every time we say, ‘I’m having a senior moment’ it reinforces the nonsense that our memory and cognition decline with age. Guess what? If you were born deaf or lived in mainland China, you wouldn’t carry the belief that memory declines with age. It’s not part of their culture.

Harvard University psychologist Ellen Langer tested whether cultural stereotypes contributed to memory loss. Young and old residents in the United States, mainland China and an American deaf community were asked to list characteristics they associated with growing old. Chinese people and those who were born deaf were less likely to perceive memory loss as a feature of ageing. When they were subsequently given memory tests, young people in all three groups scored much the same. However, older Chinese and older deaf people performed significantly better in memory tests than older Americans who had no hearing deficits. The memory decline was not due to biology — it was due to constantly hearing messages about worsening memory as we age. 

If we forget something in our 20s, we don’t give it a second thought. We attribute it to a big night our or a moment of distraction. If we forget something in our 70s, we worry it’s a sign of decline. This anxiety triggers cortisol release which causes brain freeze and destroys cells in the hippocampus — our brain’s memory centre — thereby increasing the likelihood of more memory lapses. Then we become hyper-vigilant for further signs of weakening memory and start avoiding situations where our memory is put to the test. Use it or lose it. Before we know it, we’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Data analysed from 1.2 million people revealed that the speed at which we process information during decision-making increases during our 20s and stays high until at least our 60s. After this time we get fractionally slower but we make up for it by being better at pattern recognition and seeing the bigger picture.

Another study uncovered that one of the biggest determinants of healthy ageing was having sprightly grandparents — not because of genetics but because of having vibrant role models. Children exposed to elderly people who are active and independent, learn that old age is associated with freedom, not frailty. In many ways we are ‘taught’ how to age by those around us. The Japanese island of Okinawa is home to some of the longest living people in the world. Their culture equates ageing with wisdom and authority, not illness and irrelevance. This attitude guides their everyday lives and provides older people with meaning, purpose and vitality until the day they die. Even though we can’t choose our grandparents, we can choose to be a sprightly grandparent or savvy senior ourself.

The first step to ageing better is to feel better about ageing.

One of my pet gripes is our ‘anti-ageing’ culture. Why should we be anti-ageing? It sends the message that ageing is a bad thing. Ageing is a great thing if you consider the alternative. I’m pro-ageing because the alternative is dying young. So let’s celebrate ageing and congratulate ourselves and others for making it as far as we have.  

To continue this discussion, join me live at Hornsby Library (NSW) at 6.15pm on Wednesday 18th October. Click here for details and to reserve your seat. I look forward to having a lively conversation with you!

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