Study: Why some women age better (it’s not genetics)

Dr. Janet Zand

September 17, 2021

 
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Most of us hope to age well. And the good news is, we have a lot more control over that than we might think.

In fact, the latest studies show that there’s something you can do right now that can change how you’ll age and what your life will look like in 20, 30 — even 40 years from now! It can mean the difference between living independently and living longer ... or suffering through more hospitalizations and loneliness.

And it has nothing to do with diet, exercise, or other healthy habits. It has nothing to do with self-care, meditation, or keeping an active social life either.
Best of all, anyone can do it, starting today.

So what is it?

The way you think about your future self.

Studies on aging show that how you think about yourself in the future can predict what your life will be like — even up to 40 years later!

For example, a woman who feels doomed to wind up “a cranky, angry old woman” is far more likely to suffer negative health and social effects as she ages.

So does that mean we should all just think “happy thoughts?” Well, not exactly. For one thing, “happy thoughts” are often just fake positivity, and your brain isn’t going to fall for it!

Also, researchers found that the real secret is to adapt a certain type of thinking. To explain what it is and how to do it, first I need to tell you a little more about what researchers discovered.

The secret of women who age well

Researchers wanted to learn more about the specific type of thinking that makes some people age better and live longer, happier lives.

To do that, they conducted a survey of older adults. In the survey, participants were asked to write down their thoughts on two different subjects:

1. Their "hoped-for" future selves, or what they hoped they would be like as they aged

2. Their "feared" future selves, or what they were afraid of becoming as they aged

Among the "hoped for" selves were things like "a social person with a strong network of friends" and "a healthy, active person."

Examples of "feared" selves were "chronically sick and in pain," "being dependent on others for my day-to-day needs," and "a cranky, angry old woman."

Then, each participant was asked to rank how capable they felt of becoming the person they hoped to be ... and avoiding becoming the person they feared to be. (This is also known as self-efficacy — your confidence in your ability to reach a future goal or outcome.)

Researchers found that the people who felt most capable of becoming their “hoped-for” self and avoiding their “feared” self had a better self-perception of aging. Now that probably isn’t surprising, but here’s what is:

This works even if you’re not a natural-born optimist.

See, researchers measured the participants’ levels of innate optimism, too. And they found that while optimism certainly helps, your level of self-efficacy is an even bigger boost.

That’s great news for everyone, and especially if you’re not always optimistic! So... how do you shore up your self-efficacy?

It starts with your environment

A strong sense of self-efficacy starts with your environment. And unfortunately, our society isn’t helpful in this regard. Here’s what I mean:

A major factor in how people see their own aging selves is ageist stereotypes. Examples of these stereotypes include assumptions that older adults:

• are bad drivers
• are unable to engage in physical activity
• suffer memory problems

Those stereotypes get reinforced every time an older adult forgets something and jokes, "Another senior moment!"

It seems like a harmless joke, but the researchers say these thought patterns can do real harm.

That’s because we now know that the mind and body are interwoven. And so if you believe that you’re going to turn into a bad driver or you can’t play tennis anymore, it will eventually erode your willingness and then your ability — to keep up these activities.

On one hand, this is great news, because it means that some of the most common problems in later life might be completely avoidable. On the other hand, what can you possibly do about a problem as big as society and ageism?!

Well, the first thing you can do is to change your self-talk. No more “senior moment” jokes, for instance.

Another way to fight negative stereotypes is to seek out more intergenerational relationships. Spend time with younger people, so they can see older adults enjoying happy, healthy lives. Spend time with older people, too, so that you can see that it's not all bad. As one of the researchers said, "Older people can do some things better than young people do.”

Another powerful tool to boost your self-efficacy is to use affirmations. Here are some examples of affirmations for positive aging:

• I can always learn new things.
• I grow, evolve, and get better every year of my life.
• I expect to feel good physically and stay independent.
• I am strong and capable, and I will be strong and capable in the future, too.
• I always deserve respect.
• I’m a social person with a strong network of friends.

Now, daily affirmations may seem strange at first, but there’s a lot of science behind them. For instance, studies show affirmations lead to better health and well-being. They also can lower stress and boost self-esteem.

And if you use them to boost your self-efficacy, they can help you become one of those women who seem to age better than everyone else!

So... try these tips out, and let me know how it goes. And here’s to our bright and happy future!

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