Misconceptions about time and aging
December 1, 2021 | View PDF
“Time and tide wait for no man,” is an ancient proverb that appears especially relevant to the aging process. However, time by itself it cannot affect living functions, behaviors or organic changes. This distinction is important. If time were the causal factor in aging there would be no need to examine the underlying genetic, biological, cognitive, cultural and environmental interactions that contribute to the aging process.
If the passage of time is accepted as the causal factor in the aging process, our attitudes toward aging and the aged are affected in ways that may reduce the willingness to intervene in the difficulties that may arise, as these difficulties may be seen as inevitable. This in turn creates a negative influence on the functional ability and quality of life of older individuals. An awareness of the factors that contribute to the aging process often leads to interventions that may help overcome functional difficulties that may arise over time.
Newer approaches to understanding the aging process involve a growing awareness that aging is a life-long process. Research has shown that events and behaviors occurring at a time early in life, including smoking, drug and alcohol use, diet, activity level, prenatal nutrition, and socioeconomic status, as well as early child abuse and neglect, among others, have significant impacts on health and future aging. This changing perspective leads to a greater emphasis on examining the specific mechanisms of aging. Aging is therefore seen as a multifaceted concept that requires a biopsychosocial approach to understanding its complexity in full.
Because of these many factors, older adults of the same age display a wide range of differences and the range of differences has been found to be larger than those found in younger adults. The many differences in individual history and biography that interact with genetic differences over long periods of time create a wide range of developmental outcomes. Utilizing such terms as ‘the old’ or ‘the elderly’ can be problematic, as they may unrealistically lead to expectations of commonality by age, or time since birth, that do not exist in reality.
Harmful effects of ageism
This lack of understanding of life’s diversity contributes to the formation of over-simplified and stereotyped perceptions of individuals based upon age. This process has been labeled ageism, the systematic and negative stereotyping of individuals simply due to their older age. Ageism may be subtle or quite overt and tends to focus on perceived negatives of aging without a consideration or understanding of an individual’s unique history and strengths. It promotes an overly pessimistic and reductionist view of the aging process.
These negative views are not harmless. Individuals with a negative view of aging when young have been found to be more likely to develop chronic illnesses in later life. Negative messages about aging have been shown to frequently accelerate the rate of cognitive decline among older adults. Ageism has also been shown to accelerate health declines including increased blood pressure and cardiovascular stress, and as well as functional abilities.
When ageist views are internalized, older adults may not seek help for treatable conditions as they may feel that pain and loss of function are inevitable. Healthcare providers may also react to and treat older patients differently. Elders are not the only ones who suffer from the effects of ageism. Society suffers a loss when the experience and wisdom accumulated over a lifetime is discounted and shunted aside.
It’s an interesting contradiction that while most individuals hope to live a long life themselves, they may also frequently view the process of attaining advanced age negatively. However, numerous studies in multiple countries examining subjective feelings of well-being over the life span have consistently found a U-shaped trajectory. On average this trajectory dips from relatively high scores in young adulthood to a low point in subjective feelings of well-being when individuals are in their early to mid 50’s which then climbs steadily as individuals reach their 80’s, to a point even above that noted by young adults. Growing older can be a challenge, but challenges can also provide opportunities for positive change.
Dennis Gall, Psy. D., age 68, is a counseling psychologist working in Anchorage.