Mark Twain once declared that “Age is a case of mind over matter; if you don’t mind it, it doesn’t matter.” Now, research suggests Twain may have been (partially) right.
A new study from the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Science at UCCS shows that older adults often perceive that they’re aging well — even if they also report poor health and wellbeing.
Amy Silva-Smith and Melissa Benton, Professors of Nursing at UCCS, co-authored the study, titled “Self-Perception of Aging Among Older Adults and Participation in Prevention,” and published in the Western Journal of Nursing Research this April.
What they found was surprising: among older adults, positive self-rated health may not be necessary for positive self-perceived health.
The study collected responses from over 200 community-dwelling older adults in southern Colorado. Participants were asked to report on their health prevention measures and healthy lifestyle behaviors — or lack thereof. These can include getting enough exercise, eating healthfully, quitting smoking and limiting alcohol intake, as well as getting regular screens for health conditions and receiving vaccinations.
Then they were asked if they thought they were aging well.
In direct contrast to prior research, Silva-Smith and Benton found that even in the presence of chronic disease and disability, the community-dwelling adults largely viewed themselves as aging well. While more than half the study sample reported poor or only fair health, they still reported that they felt they were aging successfully.
“As a nurse practitioner for over 20 years, I have wondered why some older adults participate in prevention and others do not, and how perception of aging well or successfully relates to those choices,” Silva-Smith said. “The principle finding of this study was that adults who were older and engaged in more preventive health behaviors, yet had lower self-rated health, tended to perceive that they were aging well.”
“While previously published research reports older adults with higher self-rated general health perceive themselves as aging more successfully than those with lower self-rated health, our findings suggest that this is not always the case,” Silva-Smith and Benton write.
“Self-perceived aging as a construct appears complex. The presence of poorer health related to chronic health conditions and older age may not be negatively associated with how successfully older adults perceive their aging.”
While the study highlights the complexity of the current understanding of self-perceived health, one finding is clear: older adults who participate in more healthy lifestyle behaviors and prevention are still more likely to not just feel that they are aging well, but actually report lower levels of chronic disease and functional impairment.
“Mind over matter” is one thing. But choosing to live a healthful life can bear even more fruit.
Amy Silva-Smith is the Carole Schoffstall Endowed Professor of Nursing in the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Science at UCCS. Her research interests are in behavioral interventions to reduce stroke risk factors in older adults and in interprofessional models of health promotion for older adults. Learn more about Silva-Smith on the UCCS website.
Melissa Benton is a Professor of Nursing in the Helen and Arthur E. Johnson Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Science at UCCS. Her research interests include the intersections of aging, women’s health and physical activity. Learn more about Benton on the UCCS website.
For more information, read the full study in the Western Journal of Nursing Research.