VANCOUVER—A simple shift in attitude could improve a lot for the world’s elderly population, according to a new global study.
That’s because how well we age is connected to how we view old age, the study stated, noting those with a positive attitude toward old age are likely to live longer — up to eight years — than their negative counterparts.
And older people in countries with low levels of respect for seniors are at risk for worse mental and physical health as well as higher levels of poverty, the Orb Media study found. By compiling global data, researchers also surveyed 150,000 people in 101 countries to discover levels of respect for older adults, which varied from country to country.
Canada ranked in the lower third of all for respect, along with Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
But one British Columbian expert pointed out that the study may not entirely reflect Canada’s position with the elderly.
“Our human rights legislation, federally and provincially provide protections against age discrimination,” said Christopher McLeod, associate professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of population and public health. “And many countries do not have these protections.”
McLeod said the association between negative views on aging and the relationship to health “made a lot of sense.” But he warned about statements of causality with specific attitudes toward health decline.
Despite that, seniors’ loneliness and social exclusion are key risk factors leading to declined health, he added. A 2017 report by the Vancouver Foundation found that people report high levels of social isolation and loneliness, noting a decline in community participation over the last five years.
“When we think about determinants of health, there are features in our society that are influenced by social or policy decisions, like income, education, your employment and its conditions,” McLeod said. “What we know now, is many of those things are far more important in terms of determining an individual’s health than medical care.”
|The world is facing a rapidly aging population —
by 2050, roughly one in six people will be over 65.
Countries everywhere are aging rapidly, and if trends continue, by 2050 roughly one out of six people will be over 65 and nearly half a billion will be older than 80, the report noted. Yet, public debate about this demographic shift is often focused on the anticipated economic and social challenges.
Analysis from the World Health Organization found that 60 per cent of people surveyed across 57 countries reported low levels of respect for seniors, viewing them less competent than the young and considering them a burden on society and their families.
Something as simple as how you think about aging can have a huge range of health factors, said Jim Rendon, a journalist with Orb Media.
“There’s less likelihood of dementia, heart attacks and a longer life span according to research out of Yale University,” he said. “If you have a positive attitude, you’re more likely to recover quickly from a disabling accident, like a broken hip. And less likely to be depressed and anxious.”
And the report dispelled some of the cultural myths in the East and West, Rendon said. In fact, the research found the West had more respect for the elderly than eastern countries. He cited the example of Japan — at the leading edge of the demographic shift with low birth rates and long life spans — but ranked low when it came to social respect for seniors.
But in Pakistan, well-being was less associated with youth and Rendon speculated that might have something to do with cultural traditions such as extended families living with older adults.
“Intergenerational relationships can be very helpful in terms of breaking down the stereotypes about age,” he said.
Notably, the study revealed no meaningful connection between the gross income of a country and level of respect. Rendon said that indicates respect is not limited to economic status.
To understand how attitude may impact health, he pointed to studies about biomarkers of stress: The more negative the attitude the higher the stress level. In addition, Rendon said “if you think you’re going to have an active life, you just take care of yourself better.”
And you don’t need to be “old” to have a positive attitude age: Studies out of Yale University followed people in their twenties through a lifetime and found that those with a positive view were less likely to have a heart attack in their 60s.
“That brought home the idea that it’s not just what you think when you’re old,” he said. “But it’s how you perceive aging.”