The University Record, September 14, 1992

Don’t blame aches, pains on ‘old age’

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

Do you blame your flagging health and slow pace on old age, arthritis or heart disease? If you answered “arthritis” or “heart disease,” you may outlive your more resigned neighbors.

Researchers at the U-M and Brown University have found that elderly people who blame their declining abilities on “old age” are likely to die sooner than those who attribute their difficulties to specific diseases.

“The elderly who simply shrug and say, ‘It’s old age,’ apparently have given up in the face of mounting health problems. They seem to be saying, ‘If it is aging, there is nothing I can do about it. You can’t stop the march of time,’” says William Rakowski, a researcher at the Center for Gerontology and Health Care Research at Brown, and Tom Hickey, professor of health behavior and health education at the School of Public Health.

“Those who connect their disabilities to a disease, however, seem to be more likely to think, ‘If it is a disease, maybe there is something I can do about it,’ and seek treatment. This more positive assessment of the problem may make the difference between ‘normal’ and ‘successful’ aging.”

The researchers reported their findings in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health. They based their conclusions on an analysis of the 1984 and 1988 Longitudinal Study of Aging, which surveyed 1,391 people over age 70 about their health status, problems with daily living and social involvement.

The subjects also were asked to explain the perceived cause of their ailment. If there were several causes, they were asked to identify the principal one.

“In the 1988 follow-up, we found that 45.8 percent of those who had attributed their problems with daily living to old age had died compared with just 30 percent of those who blamed them on specific diseases,” the researchers say.

Family and health care professionals should listen carefully to the elderly to determine how they attribute their problems and be ready to intervene if “old age” gets the blame, they say.

“Otherwise, the perception that there is nothing one can do is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”