Louise Morse is a trained Cognitive Behaviour Therapist with expertise on issues facing older people, including dementia.
As part of our Getting Real About Getting Older campaign, Louise Morse considers how your mindset shapes your future
"Old age ain’t no places for sissies," declared American actress Bette Davis. World famous evangelist Billy Graham also found old age very trying, saying that he had been prepared for death but not for old age. Being prepared, mentally and emotionally, is the key, and hopefully, our Mid-life MOT will help set you on track for a great old age.
The good news is that we have more control of how we will be in our old age than we realise. A large body of research shows that in most cases, our expectations dictate the outcome. Numerous studies find that people who think positively about old age at 50 years old tend to have better health 40 years later, and lived longer and healthier lives than those with negative thoughts, with fewer heart attacks, less diabetes and hypertension. A recent large American study found that those comfortable with thoughts of ageing had fewer health problems and better cognitive functioning, and lived with a greater sense of purpose.
There is a strong connection between mindsets (fixed beliefs) and health behaviours, researchers found. People with the personality trait of optimism were most likely to hold positive beliefs about ageing, feeling in control of their lives and able to make improvements. One researcher said, “How we think about all we are going to be in old age is very predictive of exactly how we will be.”
The challenge in overcoming ageist beliefs is that they are hidden from our consciousness: we absorb them from others when we are young and reinforce them all through our lives. “Even older people sometimes reinforce these stereotypes themselves in the way they behave and think about ageing,” said Professor Hooker, author of the study. “Kids as young as four years old already have negative stereotypes about old people. Then, of course, if you’re lucky enough to live to old age, they eventually apply to you.”
So, what can you do now to define your old age? You can begin by listing the characteristics you attribute to old age, and challenging them if they are negative. For example, cognitive decline and poor health are not inevitable in old age so if this is your mindset, how can you correct it? Make sure that you nurture friends and family, develop interests and stay curious – all of these things help with your emotional and mental health. Our brains are not fixed, like an arm or a leg – they have plasticity and develop when stimulated. Learning new technology stimulates neuronal circuits, and researchers have shown that using the internet halves the risk of dementia by keeping us socially connected and increasing our satisfaction with life. Another health-giving activity is becoming a volunteer, especially for a cause that you care about. Ensuring that everything you do aligns with your values builds a sense of purpose.
Proverbs 4:23 sums it up well – ‘More than anything you guard, protect your mind, for life flows from it.’ (CEB).