Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How You Age, According To Research


Answer two questions for me, and I will tell you a surprising amount about your future longevity, happiness, health, and mental acuity.

Here are the two questions...

  1. Do you feel younger than you actually are?
  2. Do you have positive perceptions or negative perceptions about aging?

Here's what the research says about your answers...

1. Positive perceptions about aging can increase your lifespan by 7+ years several studies show

A fascinating 23-year Yale study shows that our self-perceptions of aging dramatically impact our lifespan.

In 1975, 660 individuals age 50 and over in a small town in Ohio were recruited to participate in a survey about their self-perceptions on aging. Based on their responses to the following questions, they were labeled as having low or high positive self-perceptions of aging (PSPA):

  • “Things keep getting worse as I get older,”
  • “I have as much pep as I did last year,”
  • “As you get older, you are less useful,”
  • “I am as happy now as I was when I was younger,” and
  • “As I get older, things are (better, worse, or the same) as I thought they would be.”

Then, 23 years later, in 1998, researchers identified who had survived and who hadn’t. They also controlled for age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness, and functional health.

As the chart below shows, individuals with high positive self-perceptions of aging lived an amazing 7.5 years longer than those with low positive self-perceptions of aging…


follow-up study confirmed the results. Interestingly, the average age of the initial interview in this follow up study was 36.5 years (my current age). The researchers write:

Consistent with our hypothesis, younger individuals who held more negative age stereotypes were significantly more likely [nearly twice as likely to be precise] to experience a cardiovascular event over the next 38 years.
These results are astounding when you think about them. If true, changing our beliefs about aging might be the cheapest, simplest, and safest health intervention ever created.

By contrast, it has been shown that negative beliefs about aging, lead to worse outcomes such as: (1) greater cardiovascular response to stress and (2) worse health behaviors (for example, higher tobacco use). Both of theseare linked to increased cardiovascular risk. A more recent study has even shown a significant link between our self-perceptions of aging and Alzheimer’s Disease.

The following quote from Astronaut and Senator John Glenn captures the big take-away for all of us...

I think that people respond to expectations—and this starts when we’re kids. Kids tend to rise to what’s expected of them. I think as we get older, maybe we set expectations of ourselves in addition to what other people expect of us. The general public thinks, once you’re about 70 you’re going downhill, 80 you’re really downhill, 90 you’re just lucky like Annie (my wife) and I are, and very few reach 100. But whether those expectations go down or not, I think your own expectations of what you can or cannot do and what you want to do, your own expectations of yourself guide you.

2. If you feel younger than you actually are, it means that you will likely be stronger, smarter, and better adjusted as you age.

Over the years, dozens of studies have been done on subjective aging (how old you feel) and life outcomes. Here's what they've found...

  • In one study, participants that felt younger than their actual age showed a significant increase in strength.
  • In another study, researchers found that "even after accounting for chronological age and other risk factors for cognitive decline, such as disease burden and sedentary lifestyle, the subjective experience of aging predicts cognitive functioning in old age."
  • In a study that summarized other studies on the topic, researchers "showed that younger subjective ages predict better health and longer lives."
  • Longitudinal studies show that an older subjective age predicts higher depressive symptoms.

All of these studies give credence to the following quote...

You can't help getting older. But you don't have to get old. —George Burns

3. If you believe your memory can be improved in old age, you'll have better memory

In one fascinating study, researchers tested Carol Dweck's concept of growth mindset with older adults. The study found that participants who believe that memory abilities could improve in old age did better on several tests of memory, compared to those who believed that memory abilities are a fixed trait.

Bottom Line — Here's What It All Means

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can't — you're right.” —Henry Ford

As I recently wrote about, there are many brutal parts of aging.

But on the other hand, we have an incredible ability to shape how we age. And, it all starts with our beliefs and expectations. If we believe we can have more energy, be smarter and more wise as we age, we will get the fundamentals of lifestyle right. We'll be more likely to...

If we don't believe we can age well, then what's the point of expending much effort to prevent it?

These studies also have deep cultural implications. We currently live in a culture with toxic, fixed, and inaccurate perceptions about the aging process. The studies in this article go to show that these cultural beliefs are NOT benign. They can have a profoundly negative impact if they impact how people perceive their own aging.

Bottom line: no matter how old you are, you should celebrate the benefits of aging!

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Author Disclaimer: I'm currently 37 years old. Therefore, you might wonder, "Why would I spend so many hours researching the aging process?" The following quote captures how I feel. :)

Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young. — Theodore Roosevelt