Fear of aging is common among many cultures and ages, but can the fear be reduced if you know what to expect out of old age? A new study from Australian National University finds that just imagining contact with an older individual can reduce aging anxiety in men. Oddly enough, the same treatment did not impact women. This study reaffirms the need for cross-generational discussions to both impart wisdom and to reduce anxieties about the future.

The Effects of Imagination

Researchers used data collected from 123 female and 78 male participants. Both genders were first asked to imagine interacting with a 75 year old man for one minute. Then, participants were asked to do the same for a 75 year old woman. Finally, participants were asked to imagine a “pleasant outdoor scene," which operated as the control.

After all three scenarios, participants were asked to list three things they imagined in each scenario. Before and after these imagined scenarios, participants completed information about their attitudes to certain age groups. Four weeks later, participants completed another age attitude questionnaire to measure how long the effects lasted.

The study found that when a male participant imagined interacting with a 75 year old of either gender, he had more positive perceptions of aging than in the control scenario. In contrast, female participants did not experience any change in perceptions of aging.

Women and Age Anxiety

Why the gender gap between perceptions of aging? This study cites several other works on the subject. Namely, the cited research comes to the following conclusions:

  • Women are evaluated more negatively than men of an equivalent age.1
  • Women may internalize this aging double standard from the environment around them.2

As a result, women might have more anxiety over aging than men and might be less able to overcome it with simple exercises, like this imagination technique.

Reducing Aging Anxiety

With a society that focuses more on the future than it does on the present, aging can be a hard concept to confront. When confronted, it can cause anxiety in any age group. This study adds to a current body of research on reducing aging anxiety and suggests that simply by imagining an interaction with an older adult, anxiety over aging can be reduced in certain groups. Interacting with other generations, too, might help reduce anxiety over aging for both the old and the young.

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Nancy De Andrade, Ph.D, OM
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1Sontag, S. (1979). The double standard of aging. In J. Williams (Ed.), Psychology of women. New York: Academic Press

2Hurd, Laura C. Older women's body image and embodied experience: An exploration. Journal of Women & Aging, October 1999; http://dx.doi.org/10.1300/J074v12n03_06

3Katrina Prior, Kerry A. Sargent-Cox. Students' expectations of ageing: An evaluation of the impact of imagined intergenerational contact and the mediating role of ageing anxiety. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, November 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2014.06.001.

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