The researchers measured self-perception of aging by having respondents say how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, “Things keep getting worse as I get older,” “I have as much pep as I had last year,” “As you get older, you are less useful.” They measured optimism in a similar way, with respondents ranking their agreement with statements like “In uncertain times I usually expect the best.”
To measure self-efficacy, the study used a dataset that compiled survey responses from older adults where they listed two “hoped-for” future selves and two “feared” future selves, and ranked how capable they felt of becoming the person they hoped to be and avoiding becoming the person they feared to be.
Among the “hoped for” selves were things like “A social person with a strong network of friends” and “A healthy, active person.” Examples of “feared” selves were “Chronically sick and in pain,” “Being dependent on others for my day-to-day needs” and “A cranky, angry old woman.”
Results showed that, as predicted, higher optimism was associated with more positive self-perception of aging. Both “hoped-for” self-efficacy and “feared” self-efficacy were also significantly associated with self-perception of aging, above and beyond optimism as a trait.
A major factor in how people see their own aging selves is internalizing ageist stereotypes, the researchers said. Examples of such stereotypes include assumptions that older adults are bad drivers, or suffer memory problems, or are unable to engage in physical activity anymore.
“Kids as young as 4 years old already have negative stereotypes about old people,” Hooker said. “Then, of course, if you’re lucky enough to live to old age, they eventually apply to you.”
Those stereotypes get reinforced every time an older adult forgets something and jokes, “Another senior moment!” But the researchers say these thought patterns can do real harm.
“People need to realize that some of the negative health consequences in later life might not be biologically driven. The mind and the body are all interwoven,” Hooker said. “If you believe these bad things are going to happen, over time that can erode people’s willingness or maybe even eventually their ability to engage in those health behaviors that are going to keep them as healthy as they can be.”
A way to mitigate those negative stereotypes about aging is to promote intergenerational relationships, so younger people can see older adults enjoying happy, healthy lives.
“The more you’re around older people, the more you realize that it’s not all bad,” Turner said. “Older people can do some things better than young people do. Increasing opportunities for intergenerational relationships is one way we can make people more optimistic about aging.”