How much time do we spend thinking about our own aging, and how does that affect our attitude about growing older? In 2009, the Journals of Gerontology looked at the concept of “awareness of age-related changes” (AARC), defined as “all those experiences that make a person aware that his or her behavior, level of performance, or ways of experiencing his or her life have changed as a consequence of having grown older”—both positive and negative.
In June 2017, North Carolina State University researchers noted that a person’s AARC can be affected by negative experiences, but also by their attitude about aging in general. Said study author Shevaun Neupert, an associate professor of psychology, “People tend to have an overall attitude toward aging, good or bad, but we wanted to know whether their awareness of their own aging—or AARC—fluctuated over time in response to their everyday experiences.”
Neupert and her team instructed a group of seniors to keep a daily report of stressful situations they experienced, and also their attitude about their aging that day—whether they were more likely to report something along the lines of “I am becoming wiser,” rather than “I am more slow in my thinking.” The team found that unpleasant experiences indeed could trigger a more negative AARC. But, said Neupert, “People with positive attitudes toward aging were also less likely to report ‘losses,’ or negative experiences, in their daily aging evaluations.”
In 2016, Neupert and study coauthor Jennifer Bellingtier offered more evidence that having a good attitude about aging can help us weather stressful events. Bellingtier explained, “There has been a lot of research on how older adults respond to stress, but the findings have been mixed: some studies have found that older adults are less resilient than younger adults at responding to stress; some have found that they’re more resilient; and some have found no difference. We wanted to see whether attitudes toward aging could account for this disparity in research findings. In other words, are older adults with positive attitudes about aging more resilient than older adults with negative attitudes?”
In this study, the researchers instructed seniors to keep track of stressful situations they’d encountered during the week, and describe how they coped—did they feel fear, irritability, distress? Said Bellingtier, “We found that people in the study who had more positive attitudes toward aging were more resilient in response to stress—meaning that there wasn’t a significant increase in negative emotions. Meanwhile, study participants with more negative attitudes toward aging showed a sharp increase in negative emotional affect on stressful days.”
Said Neupert, “This tells us that the way we think about aging has very real consequences for how we respond to difficult situations when we’re older. That affects our quality of life and may also have health ramifications. For example, more adverse emotional responses to stress have been associated with increased cardiovascular health risks.”