How self-perceptions of aging can affect health

growing-oldFour new studies led by University of Michigan researchers have found that as we age our health is affected by both our own and our partner’s perceptions of growing older.

The papers were published on Wednesday in a special supplement to the August issue of The Gerontologist, with the principal investigator of one project, Jacqui Smith, commenting that the studies were carried out as the team was “interested in the way people interpret their own lives.”

“We know that the images in the world and age stereotypes play a role in how people perceive their own aging,” Smith added. “But subtle experiences of discrimination in interactions with strangers and sometimes with your own kids or partner — that is feedback that people take to heart and either rebel against it or begin to believe it.”

One of the studies, which looked at 1,231 couples with an age range of 51-90, found that couples who tend to view their aging negatively also tend to become less healthy and less mobile than couples who view their aging positively.

In addition, husbands’ health problems influenced their own and their wives’ attitudes towards aging, as well as their wives’ health because of the increased burden of caregiving.

A second study by Jennifer Sun, an M.D./Ph.D. candidate at the U-M Medical School, found after looking at a total of 5,340 participants that the more negatively a person viewed his or her aging, the more likely he or she was to delay seeking health care and the more barriers he or she saw for seeking care.

The findings still held true even after Sun had taken into account other factors that can delay health care, such as low socioeconomic status, lack of health insurance and multiple chronic health conditions.

The third study in the project, by U-M doctoral candidate Hannah Giasson, looked at data from the Health and Retirement Study and included 15,071 participants with an age range of 50-101.

The results showed that in all age groups, those who perceived their own aging positively were also less likely to report experiences of age discrimination.

Giasson also carried out the fourth study along with William Chopik, a Michigan State University researcher, looking at 704,151 participants with an age range of 15 to 94.

They found that as people aged, their explicit bias toward older people — or how they would talk out loud about how they felt toward fellow older adults — improved.

However, their implicit bias — which is how they felt internally about older adults — became more negative with age, leading the team to suggest that the findings could have implications for reducing this prejudice toward older adults