Ageing isn’t (just) a number…

Census large

Focus 50+ ends on 31 May 2017. As this will be my last blog for CommonHealth, I thought I would sign off by sharing some discoveries from my experiences during the past 22 months.

Like the time I tried to find out what the widely-accepted definition of elderly is. Turns out there isn’t one. Some people use age ranges, other people talk about the ‘older old’ being elderly (so who counts as ‘old’?!) You can’t definitively classify elderly by any physiological measure because the ageing process is too individual and varied. The Edinburgh Lothian Birth Cohort Study demonstrates that. They found the neurological ageing process is different for everyone, or in other words, some people’s brains age much more slowly than others. And unfortunately, some age much faster.

In Focus 50+, the most riotous interview I had was with a 91 year old who isn’t just living life, it felt like she is life! Sadly I also witnessed the decline of someone in their 60’s in a few short months, and the loss of a very special volunteer in one social enterprise who didn’t make it to 40. I was so glad I met him. He was some guy.

So what is going on beyond the genetics and lottery of birth that gives some people every advantage and opportunity, and others almost none?  The good news is there are some things you can do to improve your own health and wellbeing. If you want to live happier and feel healthier, think about embracing these:

  • Social relationships: They matter. They are also correlated with decreased mortality. Why? We don’t fully understand that yet.
  • Have a sense of shared identity and being part of a group: There is a well-documented and longstanding relationship between group membership and health & wellbeing in academic research. So keep going to the football, or hanging out with your knitting group. It really is doing you good. Even if the team lose or your knitting is as woeful as mine…
  • Feeling young is vital: It’s good for you to keeping feeling like you are 18 inside! Feeling younger promotes your health and wellbeing. Fortunately, we all tend to do it naturally. That’s why the Scottish Census graph above shows less than 20% of people aged 85+ regard themselves as being in bad health. This is called the Wellbeing Paradox i.e. older people’s self-reported health remains at a level similar to younger, healthier respondents despite natural physiological ageing and decline.
  • Be satisfied with your own ageing process: Combined with feeling young (see above) this is an indicator that is being used to measure positive wellbeing. Accepting that you will age and being satisfied that you are ageing well makes you feel more positive.
  • Comparing yourself with others: This is a bit of a sensitive one. Social Comparison Theory says we feel better if we can compare ourselves to others who are not doing as well as us. It helps us feel more positive about what we can do. But there is an upside  to this theory – if we are part of a group, we also feel better if one of our group achieves something amazing.

Of course ageing is tough and challenging for many people, but society really isn’t doing much to help anyone feel better about their chronological age. Age stereotypes abound, and we should all try to challenge them whenever and wherever we come across them. We’ll all feel the benefit if we do, particularly when it becomes our turn to be called older. Or old. Or elderly. Or past it (see what I mean?!)

I would like to sign off with a huge THANK YOU to everyone who participated in the Focus 50+ research – we literally couldn’t have done it without you! – and everyone involved in the Focus 50+ team, the CommonHealth Research Programme & the Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health. Thank you all!

Fiona has been appointed Post-Graduate Research Fellow in Social Innovation and Public Policy in the Glasgow School for Business and Society from 1 June 2017.

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