The good (but not too good) side of getting old

A few years ago I caught a snippet of an inter­view with actress Helena Bonham Carter talking about aging. I will never forget the way she described her face tran­si­tioning from that of a round china doll to one with the angles and shadows of a wise older woman. I loved hearing a celebrity talk like this—she wasn’t ashamed of get­ting older like so much of main­stream media makes us think we should be. Instead, she was proud of it.

A lot of research has exam­ined the way por­trayals of older adults impact both the elderly community’s view of itself as well as the way younger adults view that pop­u­la­tion. Studies have shown that watching pos­i­tive por­trayals of older adults actu­ally cor­re­lates with improved memory and reduced car­dio­vas­cular stress, not to men­tion a pos­i­tive self-​​view, among older people watching such ads.

The idea is that older adults see these pos­i­tive images of people in their own posi­tion and inter­nalize that “stereo­type” as being about them­selves. As such, the same thing hap­pens with neg­a­tive images, only in the reverse direc­tion. This is why so many public health cam­paigns are trying to steer clear of neg­a­tive por­trayals and ramp up pos­i­tive ones.

But a new study from researchers in Hong Kong, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with North­eastern asso­ciate pro­fessor of psy­chology Derek Isaacowitz—himself an expert on hap­pi­ness and aging—suggests a need for an ounce of cau­tion in these kinds of depic­tions. Pos­i­tive is good, the study sug­gests, but too pos­i­tive can have a neg­a­tive backlash.

The researchers showed that extremely pos­i­tive (to the point of being unre­al­istic) por­trayals of older adults can actu­ally reduce memory per­for­mance, increase car­dio­vas­cular stress, and have a bad impact on self-​​image.

So com­mer­cials like this one, which aired at the Super Bowl in 2013, may not be all that great for cam­paigns attempting to pro­mote pos­i­tive out­comes among the older community:

More real­istic ones like this are expected to be much more successful:

But it’s “a tricky bal­ance,” said Isaa­cowitz. “It is impor­tant to have media por­trayals that show both the pos­i­tive as well as the neg­a­tive aspects of aging. This is also helpful to younger adults to give them a better under­standing of aging. On the other hand, this study sug­gests that unre­al­is­ti­cally pos­i­tive por­trayals may have neg­a­tive impacts on older adults themselves.”

Isaa­cowitz also cau­tioned that there could be some dif­fer­ences between older adults in var­ious cul­tural set­tings. This study exam­ined the Hong Kong Chi­nese pop­u­la­tion: “it is not clear how much of it would also trans­late to the U.S., but the mes­sage is sug­ges­tive,” he said.