Older adults approach the aging process with a wide range of beliefs and psychological defense mechanisms in place to combat the inevitable cognitive and physical declines that come with a greater tenure on planet Earth. As Betty White once said, “I may be a senior, but so what? I’m still hot.”
If we are to assume that this quote embodies her approach toward aging, then she would definitely be in the positive minority with respect to how older adults view the aging process. Research has found that many older adults hold much more negative self-perceptions of aging (SPA) as they enter into older age. What’s more, starting around age 40, one’s SPA has been found to be related to how one actually ages—with a less optimistic view toward aging associated with less successful aging outcomes. In short, a negative SPA may be linked to more difficulty in later years.
In fact, research published recently in Psychology & Health found that optimism buffered losses in physical functioning later in life along with being associated with lower depression symptoms in general. The authors used data from the 2008 and 2011 German Ageing Survey—specifically, a representative sample of German adults who were between 40 and 85 at year one of the study—and examined levels of their self-rated health, physical functioning, and depressive symptoms.
Their analyses indicated that negative SPA at the time of the initial survey was related to later deterioration all three areas of health outcomes over a three-year period, after controlling for participants’ demographics and pre-existing conditions. The most notable finding was an interaction with optimism. Specifically, individuals who were equipped for some physical decrements (negative SPA), but who were nevertheless optimistic, were better able to preserve enhanced physical functioning, and experienced lower depressive symptoms. In other words, among the study participants, optimistic—yet realistic—views on that aging process were most highly associated with well-being in later life.
Thus, research demonstrates that if older adults believe they are able to cope relatively well with respect to the inevitable age-related physical and mental changes they are dealt as part of the aging process, then they may be able to maintain a more positive, Betty White-like trajectory compared to their less optimistic counterparts.
Wurm S and Benyamini Y. Optimism buffers the detrimental effect of negative self-perceptions of ageing on physical and mental health. Psychology & Health (2014); 29, 832–848.