Conquering the many clichés of aging

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Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer
Mary Gustafson, McKnight's Staff Writer

When I first saw this story “Your Attitude Towards Age May Increase Your Risk of Dementia Diagnosis,” several things occurred to me:

·      That study sounds an awful lot like a classic case of “blame the patient”;

·      Some editor had to sit there and forcibly restrain themselves for slugging it “You're Only as Old as You Feel”;

·      That must've been one heck of a placebo response; and

·      I wish I could anonymously send this article to a few Debbie Downers I know who have been lamenting their lost youth — or rather their perceived loss of youth a lot lately;

·      …but that would be cruel.

For this relatively small study, researchers from the University of Exeter drafted 68 people between the ages of 60 and 70:

“…who were primed to either feel older or younger than others taking part in the study. Those in the 'older' group were told the participants ranged in age from 40 to 70, encouraging them to think of themselves as being at the upper end of the age spectrum, while those in the 'younger' group were told that participants ages ranged from 60 to 90 years, encouraging them to think of themselves at the lower end of the age spectrum. All participants were then given one of two articles to read, which either focused on the effects of age on memory loss or on the impact of ageing on general cognitive ability.”

After evaluating participants with a dementia screening tool, they found that in subjects who view themselves as “older,” saw their cognitive function scores drop sharply, making them five times more likely to meet the criteria for dementia, according to the study.

It's tempting to read too much into the findings and chalk it up to the dangers of the old self-fulfilling prophecy. But that also would result in a huge missed opportunity to take advantage of humans' suggestibility. If a person can so easily convinced they are getting old, maybe they can just as easily be convinced of the opposite. Granted, elderly nursing home and assisted living residents recognize they aren't getting younger. But programs and activities that emphasize the benefits of growing older and wiser could do a lot to counter a residents' perception that they are a burden to their children and society because of their age and physical wellbeing.

Whether that means implementing mentoring programs with residents or changing the tone with which clinicians discuss age-related health issues, long-term care professionals need to recognize the beauty of the aging process and remind residents that it really is possible to stay young at heart.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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