Study: Your negative thoughts on aging could hurt your spouse

'Age-Positivity' Could Be the Key to a Long Life

Research has shown people who look at aging as a good thing live longer, with better physical and mental health. Those studies, however, focus on how your attitude affects only you.

A new study by the University of Michigan and Zhejiang University, however, found that older husbands and wives can expect not only their own health to decline but also that of their spouse when their self-perceptions about aging become negative.

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The researchers also found the health effects differ by gender.

“The husband’s self-perceptions about aging are associated with his wife’s depressive symptoms, whereas the wife’s views correlate with her husband’s physical disability, functional limitations and chronic diseases,” the University of Michigan wrote in a press release.

In general, negative aging beliefs among the elderly can become a self-fulfilling prophecy affecting psychological, cognitive, and behavioral processes, the researchers said.

“As a result, these beliefs may become a reality,” said study co-author Lydia Li, a professor of social work at Michigan.

Data from nearly 6,000 people over age 50 and their spouses were drawn from the Health and Retirement Survey, a longitudinal panel study that surveys a representative sample of about 20,000 people in the United States.

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The researchers focused on six health domains: physical disability (or challenges doing daily tasks such as dressing and eating), functional performance (which measured a dozen tasks such as walking several blocks or sitting two hours), chronic disease, depressive symptoms, cognitive functioning and self-rated health.

“By examining multiple health outcomes, we aim to obtain a broader picture with regard to the role of self-perception aging in older adults' health,” Li said.

The researchers found that when women have less negative self-perceptions about aging, they become health advocates, taking better care of themselves and encouraging their husbands to visit the doctor and adhere to medical treatment.

However, when women held higher negative self-perceptions, they were less likely to take care of themselves or encourage families members to be healthy, which had a negative effect on their husbands.

For men, though, it was the wife’s depressive symptoms — not her physical health — was more reactive to her husband’s negative self-perception about aging, the analysis showed.

“The fact that the husband’s self-perception about aging is not associated with their wife’s physical health further supports that it is usually women doing the health care work within the couple’s context,” said study lead author Meng Sha Luo, associate professor of sociology at Zhejiang University.

The gender differences are important, Li said, because they mean social service programs should pay attention to partner effects when designing programs to promote adults' well-being and improve health outcomes.

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