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Have you ever caught yourself thinking, ‘Smartphones are too smart for someone my age’ or ‘I’m too old to start studying again!’
If the answer is yes, there’s a name for what you’re doing — self-directed ageism.
Self-directed ageism is doubting ourselves about what we can do in life based on our age.
It stops us from doing things that could make life more interesting, exciting or productive. Here are some more examples:
- ‘I can’t get my hair styled like that because I’m 71, not 21!’
- ‘Who’s going to listen to a silly old duffer like me?’
- ‘Start playing soccer again at 55? I don’t think so!’
These statements all reflect a negative perception about age and reveal ageist beliefs about our self-worth, mental ability and physical capacity. And not surprisingly, because they are about age, they get stronger with each passing year.
Self-directed ageism and its impact
Self-directed ageism can negatively affect health in many ways. But its impact on physical health is the most important.
We know that ageing brings with it a natural loss of muscular strength (sarcopenia) and bone density (osteopenia). So, naturally, we slow down a bit and some of the things we do may become more challenging.
But the real problems come when we combine this natural effect of ageing with negative beliefs about what older people can or should do. For example, telling ourselves ‘Gyms are for young people’ or ‘I’m too old to play netball can limit our physical activity options.
If our activity levels drop greatly after about the age of 40, our natural loss of muscular strength and bone density can quickly become unnatural.
As such, ‘use it or lose it’ is very relevant here.
Physical activity helps us maintain strength, endurance, balance and flexibility. We need all these physical qualities to live independently and to get the most out of life, whether it’s climbing stairs or playing with grandchildren.
Positive age stereotypes its upsides
If we genuinely believe that netball, for example, is a sport with options for all ages, we are more likely to participate.
And if we do, our physical health is likely to improve, as will our mental health, self-confidence, self-esteem, recovery time from injuries and illness. This can help to delay the onset of cognitive decline (e.g., dementia).
Age-based stereotypes affect almost every aspect of life, not just physical activity.
A study of 400 people by Yale researchers found that people who think ageing provides opportunities for further growth lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those who saw it as a time of physical and mental decline.
So, why do people with positive views of ageing possibly live longer?
It could be that seeing life as having more pros than cons gives them a ‘will to live’. This view sees ageing as simply part of life.
This removes the negativity around ageing and stops it being used to limit choices and health promoting action, like being physically active.
Where does self-directed ageism come from?
Whilst some cultures celebrate age (like Japan), many cultures do not.
In cultures that view ageing negatively, the signs can be detected in:
- The way older adults have often been portrayed in television shows and films, often as frail, grumpy, forgetful, sad, helpless or confused
- The everyday expressions people use that emphasise age (e.g., ‘old codger’) or to humour others (e.g., ‘silly old bugger!’)
- The anti-ageing preoccupation of the cosmetics and fashion industries, and the mainstream media that communicate their messages.
What can we do about self-directed ageism?
There are several things we can do to reduce the impact of self-directed ageism:
- Raise awareness. Like most things, it is difficult to change anything if we are not aware of it
- Question assumptions. Change can be difficult if we never challenge unhelpful beliefs. For example, people are often surprised to learn that older adults can (and do) hike!
- Notice role models. People learn a lot by watching others. Importantly, when we observe people like us doing well at things, it can change our beliefs and boost our confidence
- Keep good company. Interact with people who have a positive view of the abilities and potential of older adults.
Healthy ageing is a lifelong process and it depends a lot on our beliefs about the ageing process.
If we see ageing as being like falling helplessly into a pit of physical and mental decline, we may not try very hard to climb out. The less we try, the faster the decline, much more than it needs to be.
The good news is that full and active living is not all genetic. So, our choices and attitudes have a big part to play.
Developing a positive view of age and ageing is a good place to start.
About the author
Dr Gordon Spence is a psychologist and exercise scientist interested in personal health motivation, with a specific focus on the role that physical activity plays in positive ageing.