Category Archives: Wellbeing

Negative stereotypes trigger loneliness & dependency in older people

The attitudes that people have about ageing have been shown to have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing in later life. An interesting study focused on the impact of internalised ageism on feelings of loneliness and dependency.

The research found that exposure to a negative ageing-stereotype increased self-reported loneliness compared to a positive ageing-stereotype or a control condition. Additionally, participants were more risk averse in the negative age-stereotype condition than in the positive age-stereotype or control condition. The results highlight that the mere activation of negative stereotypes can cause older people to adopt a condition that is reminiscent of dependent states, where they complain about their loneliness but remain passive, avoiding any behavioural initiative or risk taking.

A second aspect of the research showed that priming ageing stereotypes influenced health perception and extraversion, with participants in the negative condition declaring being in a more deteriorated state of health and describing themselves as less extraverted than their counterparts in the positive stereotype condition. A crucial finding of this part of the research was the fact that stereotype priming impacts older people’s help-seeking behaviour. More specifically, a negative age-stereotype priming increased help-seeking compared to a positive age stereotype priming.

The researchers concluded that the implications of their findings were straightforward – “The mere activation of a negative stereotype leads older individuals to feel lonely, to depreciate their health status, to avoid taking any risks and to systematically seek for help in their social environment. These effects are similar to those symptoms that are frequently encountered in an institutionalized context of enhanced dependency.”

The research can be accessed here.

Sense of purpose reduces mortality

Purpose in life refers to the sense that life has meaning and direction and that one’s goals and potential are being achieved or are achievable. Greater purpose in life has been shown to be associated with several psychological outcomes, including a more positive outlook on life, happiness, satisfaction, and self-esteem. Most importantly research has also found that sense of purpose appears to reduce mortality.

One piece of research examined the association of purpose in life with mortality in >1200 community-dwelling older persons. During 5 years of follow-up, greater purpose in life was associated with a substantially reduced risk of death; more specifically, the hazard rate of a person with a high score on the purpose in life measure was about 57% of that for a person with a low score. The association of purpose in life with mortality did not vary by age, gender, education, or race, and the finding persisted after adjustment for several important covariates, including depressive symptoms, disability, neuroticism, the number of medical conditions, and income.

The finding that purpose in life is related to longevity in older people suggests that aspects of human flourishing—particularly the tendency to derive meaning from life’s experiences and possess a sense of intentionality and goal directedness that guides behaviour—contribute to health and wellbeing in later life.

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Older people feel ‘younger’ when they have sense of control

Research shows that older adults who feel they have greater control over their lives tend to feel younger. This is important because both ‘feelings of control’ and ‘feeling younger’ are associated with better health and wellbeing outcomes for older people. For example, younger perceived age is associated with longer life expectancy and good mental health. Importantly the results indicate that both beliefs about control and age can change daily, which means that these beliefs also may be changed through various interventions including psychological and personal development strategies.

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Contributing to others improves wellbeing

Meaning and purpose can be severely challenged in later life as society generally fails to perceive older people as having a meaningful role to play. New research has added to the growing body of evidence to suggest that having a strong sense of meaning and purpose plays a very significant part in wellbeing in later life. The study looked at the phenomenon of ‘generativity’ – the concern with giving to others or leaving a legacy. It tested whether greater self perceptions of generativity were linked to feelings of connectedness, self worth, and positive emotions. They compared those people who felt they had achieved their desired level of generativity in life with those who felt that they had failed to meet their expectations.

Higher ratings of perceived contributions to the welfare of others were associated with greater current and future propensity to experience positive emotions and interact with others and with life’s challenges in a positive way. It was also associated with greater self worth and life satisfaction. Contributing to the wellbeing of others is therefore indicated as an important dimension of ageing positively. Developing a sense of meaning and purpose in life is critical to health and wellbeing in later life.

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Neurological basis of improving emotional stability over age

Contrary to the pervasive negative stereotypes of ageing, emotional functions actually tend to improve in later life, however, the brain mechanisms underlying these changes in emotional function over age remain unknown. This study demonstrate that emotional stability improves steadily over seven decades (12–79 years) and demonstrates some of the neurological changes involved. The improvement in emotional function was found to be independent from the common loss of ‘grey matter’ in the brain. The researchers propose “an integrative model in which accumulated life experience and the motivation for meaning over acquisition in older age contribute to plasticity of medial prefrontal systems, achieving a greater selective control over emotional functions.” 

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Gratitude lessens death anxiety

Death anxiety is a negative psychological reaction to the prospect of our mortality. It is related to human beings’ inability to accept mortality and is a common phenomenon. This study investigated whether a brief gratitude intervention could reduce death anxiety.  Participants in the gratitude cohort were asked to recall and then write for about 20 minutes about gratitude-inducing events for which they felt “grateful, thankful, or appreciative.”  Participants in the gratitude cohort reported lower death anxiety than those in the control groups. By re-examining life events with a thankful attitude, people may become less fearful of death due to a sense that life has been well-lived. Because gratitude can be induced using a very brief procedure, there are broad applications in clinical and health-care settings for the relief of death anxiety.

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Gratitude can be effective in reducing anxiety about death

This study investigated whether a brief gratitude induction could reduce death anxiety. 83 Chinese older adults (mean age = 62.7, SD = 7.13) were randomly assigned into one of three conditions: gratitude, hassle, and neutral, in which they wrote different types of life events before responding to measures of death anxiety and affect. Participants in the gratitude induction reported lower death anxiety than the hassle and the neutral condition, whereas no difference was observed for the latter two conditions. There was no experimental effect on positive affect, and a significant effect on negative affect but which did not favor the gratitude condition. By reexamining life events with a thankful attitude, people may become less fearful of death due to a sense that life has been well-lived. Because gratitude can be induced using a very brief procedure, there are broad applications in clinical and health-care settings for the relief of death anxiety.

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Greater anxiety about death associated with less attention to own health care needs

The relationship of death anxiety/fear to health beliefs and behaviors was examined. Using a variety of survey tools – the modified Death Anxiety Scale (DAS), the Death Anxiety Questionnaire (DAQ), the Death Attitude Profile (DAP), the Health Opinion Survey (HOS), and an item asking whether the participant had visited a physician at least once a year for a routine examination, the results indicated that those showing higher levels of anxiety about death were less likely to be actively involved in their health care. 

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Feeling younger than actual age associated with better satisfaction with life

Research indicates that maintaining a more youthful identity (i.e., a larger discrepancy between actual and subjective age) is associated with higher levels of subjective wellbeing, even when controlling for chronological age, gender, socioeconomic status, marital and employment status, and objective and subjective health. The results are consistent with the argument that feeling younger than one’s actual age may function as a positive illusion that promotes better levels of satisfaction with life and wellbeing.

Impact of stereotypical attitudes on health and wellbeing

Ageism largely remains a socially tolerated form of discrimination. From birthday cards to anti-ageing advertisements and comedy sketches, stereotypical ideas about older people and the ageing process abound. While generally trivialized in mainstream culture, this article argues that ageism is, in fact, a serious matter. Drawing from a growing evidence base, the article highlights the significant and largely detrimental impact that ageist stereotypes have on people’s outcomes in later life. It then goes on to analyse some of the possible mechanisms through which stereotypes generate this effect, and finally concludes with a brief outline of some of the psychosocial interventions that might enable older people to weaken or neutralize the toxic effects of internalized negative self-perceptions of ageing. Note: the structural and power relationship dimensions of ageism, while hugely important, are not considered within this article as its focus is on the psychological and emotional dimensions and their impact on personal health and well-being outcomes, an aspect of ageist stereotyping that is seldom discussed.

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