Why Self Image Suffers Among Seniors

Feeling a tad worthless today? If you're young, the value you see in yourself -- your self-esteem -- will probably rise steadily through middle age. But if you see the big six-zero in your near future, the value you place upon yourself will likely decline in the years ahead, perhaps dramatically.

That's the broad conclusion of a new study showing how self-esteem changes over the human lifespan. The study, based on interviews with a total of 3,617 Americans over a 16-year period from 1986 to 2002, concludes that of all the factors that affect how we view ourselves, our health and our financial prosperity have the most lasting impact.

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"We tested the effects of gender, ethnicity, education, income, employment status, relationship satisfaction, marital status, social support, health experiences and stressful life events," said psychologist Richard W. Robins of the University of California, Davis, co-author of the study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"Many of these variables were related to self-esteem, but in our study, only health and income helped to explain the decline in self-esteem that occurs in old age," Robins said via e-mail.

Several Factors Influence Trajectory of Self-Esteem

The study also found that self-esteem's "trajectory," the path it follows over the course of a human lifetime, is influenced by a number of other factors:

Women had lower self-esteem than men through most of their lives, but the two genders were about equal by the time participants reached their 80s.

The self-esteem of whites and blacks differed only a little at age 25. However, black participants declined more sharply than white participants from about age 60.

Education plays a major role in maintaining self-esteem. Participants with higher education outranked those with less education throughout their lives.

The study was based on an analysis of the Americans' Changing Lives longitudinal study at the University of Michigan, which conducted four separate interviews with Americans ranging in age from 25 to 104 -- in 1986, 1989, 1994 and 2002. The number of participants had dwindled to 1,787 by the fourth round of interviews, due chiefly to deaths, but that's still a large sample.

Self-Esteem Related to Health, Behavior, Life Success and More

The participants were asked to rate how much they agree with several statements, from "I take a positive attitude toward myself," which indicates high self-esteem; to "At times I think I am no good at all" and "All in all, I am inclined to feel that I am a failure."

Numerous other studies have shown that how we view ourselves, or the value we see in ourselves, plays a dramatic role in our relationships with others and our overall performance.

"Self-esteem is related to better health, less criminal behavior, lower levels of depression, and, overall, greater success in life," psychologist Ulrich Orth of the University of Basel and lead author of the current study said in releasing the results. "Therefore it's important to learn more about how the average person's self-esteem changes over time." The third author is Kali H. Trzesniewski of the University of Western Ontario.

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