Declining health is a natural process of aging. The majority of individuals over age 65 experience more physical health problems as they enter the golden years than they did earlier in life. Some experience mild, common health problems, such as high blood pressure, arthritis, memory problems, and fatigue, while others struggle with more debilitating chronic conditions. The way in which an individual believes they are aging directly influences their well-being. This belief is known as a self-perception of aging (SPA) and was the focus of a recent study led by Kerry A. Sargent-Cox of the Centre for Research in Ageing, Health & Wellbeing at the Australian National University in Australia.
Previous research has shown that people with a positive SPA have positive outlooks on life and high levels of life satisfaction, whereas those with negative SPA have more psychological problems, physical problems, impaired cognitive abilities, less desire to live, and increased mortalities. For her study, Sargent-Cox looked specifically at the expectation of control and self-esteem, two factors that directly influence SPA, in a sample of 1,569 Australians over the age of 65. The participants were evaluated five times over a 16-year period and were assessed for their ability to perform activities of daily living, their levels of self-esteem and expectation of control, and overall health.
Sargent-Cox found that decline in physical abilities directly predicted the participants’ impairment of psychological resources, in particular self-esteem and perception of control. These factors then decreased the level of SPA in these individuals. The results also revealed that the participants who exhibited high levels of self-esteem and a reasonable expectancy of control over their health, regardless of their decrease in physical abilities, had higher levels of positive SPA. These findings suggest that even though clinicians may not be able to directly transform an aging client’s physical condition, they may be able to help them change their beliefs about their health and increase their self-esteem, thereby indirectly improving their overall health status. Sargent-Cox added, “The current study has highlighted the important contribution that investigating within- and between-individual variations can bring to the understanding of adaptive mechanisms and coping strategies surrounding successful aging.”
Sargent-Cox, K. A., Anstey, K. J., & Luszcz, M. A. (2012). Change in health and self-perceptions of aging over 16 years: The role of psychological resources. Health Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027464
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