Be careful what you think

Be careful what you think — our assumptions about ageing actually influence how we age. Harvard University psychologist Ellen Langer tested whether cultural stereotypes contributed to memory loss. Young and old residents of 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 deaf people performed significantly better in memory tests than their hearing American counterparts. Their memory decline was not due to their biology; it was due to their beliefs. 

If we forget something in our 20s, we don’t give it a second thought. We attribute it to a big night out or a moment of distraction. If we forget something in our 70s, we worry it’s a sign of decline. The anxiety triggers cortisol release which causes brain freeze and destroys cells in the hippocampus (memory and learning centre of the brain) — thus increasing the likelihood of more memory lapses. 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.

Another study uncovered that one of the biggest determinants of healthy ageing was having sprightly grandparents. This was not attributable to genetics but to 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 daily lives and provides older people with meaning, purpose and vitality until the day they die.    

Whenever Dad began protesting that his life didn’t matter, I reminded him that his health and vitality were an example to others. ‘Your engagement with life is not just about your quality of life but also that of people around you. You show them what’s possible for a person of your age. You give them a vibrancy to aspire to. You’re playing an important role in our community.’

Our beliefs are so ingrained, so deeply rooted, that we don’t even perceive them as beliefs. We treat them as facts. Our beliefs are the lens through which we see the world and if we never question our beliefs, we blind ourselves to the limitless possibilities within our reach. 

Please forward this Health-e-Byte to anyone for whom it might be of interest.

Showing 3 comments
  • Heather Syminton

    So true!! I am 7 weeks away from 93!!! Yes Xmas baby but I manage to cope with those who are mean enough to give me a present for both in one hit!!!! I still think and agree with you that we must keep going with learning, keeping as busy as possible,and having interests that keep our brain working and getting out and about with plenty of exercise. I still line dance each week and have just recently given up my job as Saturday Shop Girl at the retirement village where I have lived now for 32 years.(Made some awful mistakes with the till and was not too pleased when residents gave me their credit card instead of good old fashioned cash!!!) Am still rather old fashioned!!!
    I do love your articles and did so enjoy your book. It had a profound effect on me even tho I was 3 or 4 years younger when I read it. Your father was amazing and how fortunate he was to have you gently egging him on.I have 3 daughters who I guess do their best but living in a retirement village is a help as we are all really in the same box.Thank you for your mail and please keep it coming.
    Sincerely Heather Syminton.

  • Angela Davies

    Great blog, I am fighting my belief of being over the hill at aged 54, learning about active (mental and physical) people aged 50+ to 100 is my daily conquest, fascination and inspiration. Unfortunately my low education & social life has meant catching up with the whole spectrum of wellbeing an explosion of information. Thanks to multiple media outlets I can read, listen & watch hours of facts everyday. Thankyou.

  • Rita

    Agree. Because of my parents I always looked forward to aging. You have more fun, as you get older.

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