Q: My father is 85 years old and until recently has been positive, outgoing and never complained. Because of a sore back and knee, he paid his doctor a visit. After being diagnosed, my father asked, “With these aches and pains, how will I be when I'm 100 years old?” The doctor replied, “Don't worry, you are not going to live to be 100.” At least that's how my father heard the remark. Since that conversation, my father's outlook on life has changed. Now he is talking about his age, complains and questions whether he will be able to continue taking cruises. Could the doctor's remark have affected him so profoundly?
A: You are on to something. Research has shown that older people who believe in negative stereotypes tend to fulfill them.
Dr. Walter Bortz II, a noted Stanford geriatrician, writes about aging as a self-fulfilling prophecy. As part of an initial assessment of his older patients, he asks, “Who do you think you are going to be when you are 80, 90 or 100?” He reports that patients often reply that they do not believe they will be around at those ages or they may be living in a “forlorn nursing home with an oxygen tube up my nostril, while endlessly contemplating the Styrofoam squares in the ceiling.”
Bortz typically replies, “If you say you're going to be dead or in a nursing home when you are old, you will be.” He adds, “Every day, in every way you're acting or reacting or not acting in such ways” that will guarantee “the accuracy of your prediction.”
He continues that our “new reality depends on two prerequisites – guts and smarts. Smart enough to recognize that 100 is really our birthright and the guts and courage to get out of bed every morning and say yes to life.”
In an interview with Bortz several years ago, I asked about the book he wrote, “Dare to Be 100,” which identified 99 steps to reach 100 years. “Which of the 99 steps was most important?” I asked. Instead of giving the usual answer of exercise, nutrition, relationships or stress management, he referred to step No. 19, which he considers the most important one: attitude. Bortz said, “Believe you can reach 100; then everything else will follow.”
But there is more. In a paper published in the journal Social Cognition, a relationship was found between a negative self-prophecy and memory. Men and women in late middle age were given a standard memory test. They underperformed when they were told they were part of a study that included “older” people over age 70. That message was an indirect reminder of the connection between age and memory loss. The authors concluded that link was strong enough to affect their test scores, especially for those most concerned about getting older.
Younger people also are affected by negative beliefs. A study reported in the journal Psychological Science suggests a link between ageism in healthy young people and poor heart health in later life. Hundreds of men and women were studied for almost four decades as part of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. Young people who viewed old age in negative terms were more likely to experience some kind of cardiovascular disorder over the next four decades. Risk factors such as smoking, depression, family history, cholesterol or other risk factors could not explain the episodes of heart disease.
When we deal with young children as parents or teachers, we are reminded that children rise to the expectations set for them. Just move that way of thinking to later life. If the expectations are low – that's where we will be.
In contrast, if we remove those negative thoughts, images and stereotypes, imagine what we could be or do. Bortz is an example. When I met him about two years ago at age 80, he was training for his 40th marathon.
M.B., thank you for your important question. Indeed the physician's statement that your father would not live to be 100 sent him a strong message. He may not have thought about his age until the doctor mentioned it. What to do? Remind your father of his strengths. And remember that if we believe we will live to 100, we'll likely to do everything possible to make that happen.
Send email to Helen Dennis at email@example.com, or go to www.facebook.com/SuccessfulAgingCommunity.