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.

Study Examined Self-Esteem in Different Generations

"One of the strengths of our study is that it includes individuals from many different generations (i.e., people born as early as the turn of the century to people born in the early sixties)," Robins said in his e-mail. "We were able to test whether different generations of people have different self-esteem trajectories. We found no differences in the trajectory across generations. So, thus far, baby boomers are following the same trajectory as earlier generations.

"Given this consistency across generations, we do not expect to find that baby boomers show a different trajectory as more of them enter old age. However, with medical advances, people are healthier for longer and are able to work longer and maintain their incomes longer, thus, it is possible that the decline in self-esteem might occur later in life for baby boomers."

As with any study that puts all humans in the same category, all of us can think of some older people who have lost some self-esteem for reasons other than poor health and too little wealth. The death of friends, a sense of helplessness in the face of difficult challenges, and simply being left behind by rapidly-changing technologies that many seniors find intimidating all probably play some role.

Health, Income Key Factors Contributing to Self Esteem

But according to the study, none of those factors rank even close to poor health and declining income in old age.

"In contrast, midlife is a time of highly stable work, family and romantic relationships, characterized by peaks in achievement, mastery, and control over self and environment," the study says.

If we are lucky, for a while it seems we are in control of our own destiny, the masters of our domains, no matter how large or small.

But there comes a time when the knees start to creak, the bank account may diminish, and it may seem that no one is particularly interested in the views of an old person. A few years ago I got into an argument with my father-in-law, a strong man who had carved out a legacy in the backwoods of Alaska.

Why, I asked him, did he refuse to learn how to use an ATM machine? It's so simple, I said, and so convenient. But life was coming at him pretty fast, and his alert mind found much of it confusing and unsettling.

"When you get old," he finally answered, "you feel very vulnerable."

But he was still in good health, and he had planned well for his retirement. Now almost 90 years old, he still feels pretty good about himself.