Self-Esteem Key to Graceful Aging, Even for Baby Boomers, Says UMass Amherst Psychologist

February 24, 1999

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AMHERST, Mass. - People who grow old gracefully are the ones who maintain a positive self-image, according to a study to be published by University of Massachusetts psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne. Maintaining a positive self-image, along with behavior adjustments in response to physical changes, also appear to prevent mid-life crises and trauma caused by menopause, Whitbourne says.

By contrast, individuals who brood about the aging process and its effects on their bodies find aging difficult and their self-esteem suffers, according to Whitbourne. "What we''re saying is the whiners don''t do very well with aging," she says. The findings, to be published in the journal Psychotherapy, are based on an in-depth survey of 242 adults between the ages of 40 and 95.

The study, conducted by Whitbourne and graduate student Kathleen Collins, also included the reactions to aging of the so-called "Baby Boomers," the large post-World War II generation. People in this generation were more concerned about how they looked as they aged, an issue that was of less concern to their elders, the study finds.

The research by Whitbourne and Collins also found no evidence of so-called mid-life crisis, as related to self-esteem. In addition, among women experiencing menopause, that was not a factor they considered important in defining their self-identity. "Those two things didn''t even register," Whitbourne says.

The key element to successful aging in both generations, Whitbourne says, is how much emphasis people give to the aging process when they think about themselves. "What we have found, is that the most successful don''t change their identity drastically as they get older. They do alter their behavior in response to physical changes brought on by aging. Basically, they don''t start to think of themselves as ''old,'' even if others do."

Among the people she studied between age 40-65, Whitbourne says the most important changes people reported noticing were in their physical appearance: hair color, amount of body fat, and vision. People older than age 65 were more concerned with basic physical functions, including their ability to get around, hearing loss, and balance, Whitbourne says. However, those whose self-esteem remains high do not give these changes a great deal of thought even when they have significant health problems as well as normal age-related changes.

Overall, the study finds that adults as young as 40 are sensitive to age-related changes, but find ways to minimize their importance.