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Living a Self-Fulfilling Prophesy

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Sometimes we become what we believe, particularly when it comes to aging. Studies have shown that older people who believe in negative stereotypes about aging tend to fulfill them.

Dr. Walter Bortz, II, a noted Stanford geriatrician writes about aging as a self-fulfilling prophesy. 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.” “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, 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 Dr. Bortz several years ago, I asked about the book he wrote, “Dare to Be 100” (Simon & Schuster, $13.49) 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 #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-prophesy 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 “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. 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. Dr. Bortz is an example. When I met him about two years ago at age 80, he was training for his 40th marathon.


Remember that if we believe we will live (and want) to reach 100, we’ll likely to do everything possible to make that happen.

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