Stressing about aging damages your brain, shortens your life

Dementia, disrespect, and loneliness – that is not your future, says aging expert Ashton Applewhite.

ASHTON APPLEWHITE: When I started thinking about this, almost all my associations with aging were older, and where my fear was deepest had to do with cognition. Dementia is a terrifying disease, and we are nowhere near a cure. I think what people forget is that it is in no way typical of aging. The statistics, the latest statistics from the Alzheimer's Association and this statistic has dropped significantly just in the 10 years I've been studying this it is that one out of 10 of the entire 65-plus population does come down with Alzheimer's. The older you are, the more likely you are to get it age is the biggest risk factor so the percentage increases as you get older. But very, very few people my age, 66, have Alzheimer's. The point being, it is not typical of aging. And, telling both sides of the story here, Alzheimer's rates continue to decline. We're not sure why, but the odds of anyone listening to this coming down with Alzheimer's have gotten lower and lower. And people are getting diagnosed at later ages. So let's tell both sides of the story.

As we age, most of us do experience some decline in specific cognitive functioning, like the ability to remember the name of that movie you saw with what's-her-name last week. But one thing I'm always pointing out to people is that younger people forget stuff too, all the time. This is not just an old-age affliction. Where ageism comes in is that when you can't remember the name of the movie, and you're my age, you think, oh, crap, that means I'm getting dementia. Which it might, but it really, really, really probably does not. It is true that older people can take longer to come to a conclusion about something, or perhaps remember something. But one reason this is so, and interestingly, this came out a study done by data scientists in Germany, who weren't even studying anything aging related, is that as we grow older, we acquire more experiences and memories. So literally, just like a processor, the brain has to sift through more information to get to an answer. And it is that process of sifting that enables us, often, older people, to come up with a more measured or deeper response. That's why it is so terrific to have mixed age teams. For many reasons that are intuitively obvious, younger people might come up with more answers more quickly, and possibly think of things that an older, more perhaps experienced person might think, oh, we tried that 10 years ago and it's not going to work. But if you pair the agility of a young mind with the experience and more seasoned approach of an older worker, you arrive at a synthesis that is the best possible thing. You can make an analogy in terms of physical activity as well. Older workers certainly physically move slower, no doubt about that. But they injure themselves less often.

A growing body of really, really interesting evidence shows how attitudes towards aging affect how our minds and bodies function at the cellular level. People with more positive attitudes towards aging, which I would say is simply more realistic attitudes towards aging, because most of us are so brainwashed to equate aging with decline, show that they walk faster, they have better handwriting, which is a pretty good indicator of general health. They heal faster, even from severe disability. They live longer, not just a little bit, an average of seven and a half years longer. And the latest research shows that positive attitudes towards aging confer protection against dementia, even in people genetically predisposed to the disease. The idea is that if you are not worrying about aging, if you are not under this stress of believing that everything is going to go to hell in a handbasket, and you are going to be conferred to the sort of dustbin of history, or abandoned by those you love, or abandoned by your brain, or deserted by your body, those are all sources of stress. They are messages that an ageist culture bombards us with on a daily basis, in the news, starting with children's books, all the way up. When we refute those messages, when we look at the purpose behind them, and look at the evidence all around us, at the lives that older people are living, it's very easy to see the alternate truthful reality. And that confers protection.

The earlier in life we become what I call an old person in training which is to acknowledge that, guess what, we're going to become old and it's probably going to be different than we think right now, and probably way better the better, because then we can see ageist messages in the culture more clearly and refute them. If we look around at the older people around us, it is obvious that the vast majority are living interesting lives and going about their daily lives with interest and purpose. I have never met anyone who actually wanted to be any younger, no matter how terrified they were of getting older. So think about that, right? Because even if we are brainwashed by an ageist culture, we know that our years are what make us us.

  • The best anti-aging advice? Stop stereotyping old people! Cultural messaging about the pitfalls of old age causes undue stress that prematurely ages the brain and shortens life spans.
  • People who have a positive outlook on aging can live 7.5 years longer than those who buy into cultural stereotypes about getting old.
  • It's important to look at the positives of aging, not just the risk factors: Alzheimer's rates are declining, 'mental sifting' can make us wiser, and older workers injure themselves less often than younger workers.

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