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FSU researcher: Women do get better with age

Anne Barrett, sociology professor and director of FSU’s Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy

A Florida State University researcher has found that younger women’s concerns about wrinkles and deteriorating health cause them to have lower emotional well-being than those women who’ve passed the so called ‘midlife crisis’ phase.

Anne Barrett, sociology professor and director of FSU’s Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy, found that young women’s greater anxieties about declines in health and attractiveness degrade their emotional well-being, while older women’s maintenance of increasingly youthful identities as they age enhances their well-being.

The study, “Explaining age differences in women’s emotional well-being: The role of subjective experiences of aging,” will be published in the Journal of Women and Aging in December.

“Our society’s marginalization of older women can have consequences for women across adulthood,” Barrett said. “It can erode their emotional well-being long before they reach old age.”

Barrett and research partner Erica Toothman, an instructor in the sociology department at the University of South Florida, examined the role of five components of the subjective experience of aging in accounting for age differences in women’s emotional well-being — age identity, conceptions of the timing of middle age, aging attitudes, aging anxieties and self-assessed physiological changes.

Of those five, the study found age identity and aging anxieties played the largest role in accounting for younger women’s lower emotional well-being than that of older women’s. The younger women had greater anxiety about aging, particularly as it related to declines in health and attractiveness.

“It points to the relevance of ageism to all of us — across our lives,” Barrett said. “It also highlights the need for visibility and positive representations of older women across all domains of life — in the media, in politics and other arenas.”

Researchers also found that middle-age and older women engaged in a strategy that enhanced their own emotional well-being: They maintain youthful perceptions of themselves. In fact, these views become more age discrepant as they grow older. For instance, if you ask a 45-year-old women how old she feels, she might say 40 and if you ask a 75-year-old the same question she might say 65.

Researchers used the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States to conduct their research. More than 3,000 people nationwide between the ages of 25 and 74 were given an extensive questionnaire, covering the areas of social responsibility, psychological well-being and physical health. The group was surveyed twice, first in 1995-1996 and then again 10 years later between 2004-2006.

“We focus on women because their decline in status as they age is steeper than men’s,” Barrett said. “For example, they face more age discrimination in the workplace and feel more pressure to mask signs of aging. This double standard of aging pointed us to a novel explanation for older women’s better emotional well-being, compared with younger women.”

Barrett said extensions of the study could examine how women in other systems of inequality, like race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and sexual minority status might experience aging and what implications that might have for their emotional well-being.