Research shows that a positive attitude to ageing can lead to a longer, healthier life, while negative beliefs can have hugely detrimental effects. Behaviour is undoubtedly important. If you associate age with frailty and disability, you may be less likely to exercise as you get older and that lack of activity is certainly going to increase your predisposition to many illnesses, including heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Importantly, however, our age beliefs can also have a direct effect on our physiology. Elderly people who have been primed with negative age stereotypes tend to have higher systolic blood pressure in response to challenges, while those who have seen positive stereotypes demonstrate a more muted reaction. This makes sense: if you believe that you are frail and helpless, small difficulties will start to feel more threatening. Over the long term, this heightened stress response increases levels of the hormone cortisol and bodily inflammation, which could both raise the risk of ill health.
Memory loss is one of the most common complaints of older adults. Lifestyle interventions, including exercise, are increasingly popular to preserve brain health in older age. While there is ample empirical evidence to support the cognitive benefits of a physically active lifestyle, the neurophysiological mechanisms are difficult to determine conclusively in humans. Over months or years, it may not be possible to disentangle the independent effects of exercise from those attributed to factors such as social interactions and diet. However, if daily exercise accumulates to produce brain benefits over time, then it stands to reason that each session of exercise may produce effects from which these long-term adaptations occur.