5 Things Women Fear Most About Aging

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Dread getting older? Women around the world seem to worry about aging more than men do, according to the 2010 Bupa Health Pulse, a 12-country survey by the British health care company Bupa. China is the most fearful country, and its top concern -- perhaps unsurprisingly, given family size limits -- is, "Who will take care of me?" The French seem least concerned about aging -- a third of respondents there say "old" starts after age 80.

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And in the U.S.? Psychiatrists and life-cycle experts agree that what women fear most about aging seems different from what men fear most about aging.

Among women's top fears ...

Women's Aging Fear #1: Losing Attractiveness/Becoming "Invisible"

Let's see . . . wrinkles. Saggy breasts. Gray hair. Permanent post-baby belly. Dry skin. Weight gain. Each change wrought by time and gravity renders most women a bit more invisible in a culture that prizes dewy youth. Enter the booms in plastic surgery, laser skin resurfacing, and "anti-aging" cosmetics.

And it never ends. Fear about appearance persists right into the 70s and 80s -- when women add hearing aids, walkers, canes, and stooped posture to the dreaded "visible markers of being old," says geriatrician Laurie Jacobs, director of the Jack and Pearl Resnick Gerontology Center at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

"Women are always, unfortunately, more concerned about whether they appear old," she says. "Your sense of appearance is associated with your functional status."

Fear fighter: Self-care. You can't control others' views, but you can do a lot to stave off the infirmary and cultivate an inner beauty that transcends the outer packaging. Get enough sleep, reform your diet, exercise, laugh, stay engaged with the world. "You're as young as you feel" may be a cliché, but it's true.

Women's Aging Fear #2: Being Left Alone

A spouse's death figures high among women's fears, as does seeing their children dying first or losing old friends when they relocate for retirement, move to be closer to family, or become sick or die. "Social losses are very painful," says Eva Kahana, professor of sociology at Case Western Reserve University, who directs its 20-year Successful Aging Study.

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"Men are 'fight-and-flighters.' If they can't do something, that's stressful," says stress expert and Harvard instructor Eva Selhub, senior physician at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine. "Women are 'tenders and befrienders.' If they can't have as many people in their lives, that's what's stressful to them."

"The fear of being alone is more harsh for women," adds Selhub. "Men seem to more easily find a younger model. You're more likely to see a 70-year-old man with a 30-year-old woman than to see the reverse."

Fear fighter: Know that even if you have fewer overall connections as you get older, they gain intimacy and importance -- and that's true for both women and men. "We think of old people as loners, but they're really not," Kahana says. "And though it's often emphasized how men and women are different, after age 70, we see both genders becoming less self-centered and more connected to others."

Women's Aging Fear #3: Becoming a Bag Lady

Bernie Madoff, the real estate collapse, and the Great Recession 2.0 have only fueled a classic female fear of aging: financial destitution. "Men tend to be more financially secure, make more money, and have a bigger pension and Social Security checks," says Ken Robbins, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin. "Widows are often left with dramatically less money."

Today's younger women may also carry mental images of their mothers' and grandmothers' financial illiteracy. Even if an ignorance-is-bliss policy regarding family finances isn't true in their own families, uncertainty about the future and a sense of never having enough can be haunting.

Fear fighter: Experts expect this fear to diminish among women as more boomers, Gen-Xers, and younger members of both genders gain confidence about managing their money. That's not to say everyone will ever have enough of it -- so squirreling away even small amounts each month for savings or retirement funds pays off big later.

Women's Aging Fear #4: Cancer

Maybe it's those ubiquitous pink ribbons. Cancer, particularly breast cancer, tops the health concerns women fear most, according to a 2005 study by the Society for Women's Health Research. Ironically, lung cancer is twice as deadly as breast cancer for women, but seventh on their list of fears. Respondents were also more fearful of ovarian cancer than colon cancer, although the latter kills more.

"The more mammograms and colonoscopies we're asked to have done as we get older, the more we become afraid of our bodies breaking down," says the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine's Eva Selhub, who also wrote The Love Response.

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Fear fighter: Cancer is rightfully scary. Keeping up a healthful lifestyle and getting routine screenings are two good offenses. So is putting the actual scariest health threat for women in perspective: Heart disease (named by only one in 10 women in the same survey as her top fear) is actually the number-one killer of women in the U.S.

Women's Aging Fear #5: Being Dependent on Others

Both men and women alike dread "becoming a burden," according to the Successful Aging Study's Eva Kahana. But for many women, who have traditionally been the caregivers, the prospect of a role reversal is especially uncomfortable.

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"A woman may see her spouse as not being interested or skilled about taking care of her, if the time comes, knowing he knows almost nothing about caregiving," Robbins says. "She doesn't want to interfere with the lives of her adult children, either."

Fear fighter: Plan ahead. Ironically, many women who don't wish to be a burden become exactly that because they haven't done basic advance healthcare planning. Assign someone now to have health care power of attorney in the event you become incapacitated. Make a living will specifying your preferences about life support. Look into long-term care insurance. Somebody might thank you later -- maybe you.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio

about 1 year, said...

Last month I had a light 3 day period and this month I only had very little to nothing 2 day spotting. Does this mean I'm pregnant or premenopausal?

almost 2 years, said...

As an attractive young lady, I developed many strategies to avoid unwanted attention from men. When I got older and became invisible, what freedom. I was in the gym and realized I could do my thing and nobody would notice me. It was empowering to be out from under this burden. I am also more comfortable and trusting of those who initiate conversation because they want to talk with me, not to get somthing, to flirt or look good. My guard dropped, I am more open and see the world much differently as an older person. Pleasant surprises keep coming as well as the worries.

about 2 years, said...

I hate aging. I think about it evety minute of the day. Since i was 36 yrs old, my husband has been telling me as a woman, im threw. That comment has ruined my soul. Then hes always asking womens ages. And if theyre older, hell say something like " she used to be fine" anyways, its really devastating to feel unwanted and a has been. I wish i could love myself again, but i cant

over 2 years, said...

I just got married this year and I am turning 34 tomorrow. Honestly, getting married is not that big a deal. Past the wedding dress, flowers, and makeup, it is all sheer monotony and just a heap of routine nothingness. In all honesty, I think the most important thing for a woman at any age is to not prioritize men AT ALL. I wish I were single again and doing what I wanted like taking art and dancing classes. Then again, when I was single and in my mid to late 20s when I was doing whatever the hell I wanted there were too many people prying into why I wasn't settling down and eventually, it did get to me though I did throw back the question at them of "what is so important about marriage?" I guess it is not in my nature and I made a mistake. What I have come to realize is that people will just never respect a woman for not wanting to be a wife or raising kids. What I have come to realize is that I don't need anyone's phony respect. All I need is to be happy.

about 4 years, said...

I'm female, 63, still self-employed and collecting SS. With increasing costs of everything, the "ends" are not meeting. While my appearance has changed, I still feel attractive though finding a(nother) man to enhance my life and circumstances seems unlikely as everyone in my small town seems like a brother and OPM $$ is not a motivator. My health is excellent but no insurance--to date. I'm seeing "downsizing" or welfare in my future. Or,believe it or not, I'm thinking of selling everything, moving and starting over!

about 4 years, said...

Some specifics. It mostly reads like an introduction to giving information.

about 4 years, said...

I'm 66. I don't know about all this. #1. Losing attractiveness/becoming "invisible": I kind of like being invisible. Don't have too much time to worry about "attractiveness". not interested in attracting anybody. I do NOT like all these CHINS, however!!!Geez. #2. Being left alone: I have no kids or family of my own, and my 82-year-old hubby is far enough into dementia that he doesn't always know who I am. I've been losing him for years, and I guess I'll "be alone" when he dies, but no more alone than I am now. I'm actually looking forward to the freedom I imagine I'll have, with nobody around to try to get along with. I have close friends and a spiritual community, and I've been learning to do everything for myself for a long time now. And I certainly am not interested in having another husband any time soon! Geez. #3: Becoming a bag lady: Since I took over the finances I've become less worried than I used to be. I used to worry that he would die & I would lose everything he'd worked so hard to accumulate. Well, somehow I learned enough over the years to continue his investment philosophy, did that for a while, realized I'm not as interested in it as he was, and am in the process of turning this part of my life over to the institutional trustee named in our trust. I realize that I'm very fortunate to have married a successful cheapskate who saved and invested, and not everybody has that. But I was still terrified for many years. #4: Cancer: I'm more afraid of heart disease, which runs in my family, and I'm well aware that I don't pay as much attention to prevention as I should, and I do feel guilty about it. Funny, you'd think I would fear dementia these days but I don't seem to, but I think it's because I'm on a mission while I'm still in my right mind to get all the ducks lined up for my future care, in the event that it happens. In any case, I want to stuff as much into my life as I can before it does! #5 Being dependent on others: I hope not! My parents were adamant about "not being a burden" on their children, and got themselves organized into a continuing care community where they were very happy--my dad had Parkinson's disease but lived to 83 and my mother lived another eight years after he died and was active until the last year of her life. They knew what it was to take care of an elderly & demented parent--my father's mother lived with them for years with increasing Parkinson's and dementia, and they weren't about to lay that on me and my sister. And it wasn't that they were rich--just "middle class", but they minded their wallets and planned ahead. I guess I inherited the gene, because I've always expected that at some point I'd move into one of those places where somebody else does all the work and be an elderly butterfly, and anyway I don't have any candidates for being my caregiver--when I think of the prospect of having any of his kids take care of me, I want to run! Yikes! I love them to death but no thanks. I hope I can take care of my hubby at home though, he never was a "joiner" Way too independent, and now lonely as a result, I think. I liked summer camp, wearing uniforms at school, & so on. I think little old ladies do a lot better with stuff like that than little old men.

almost 5 years, said...

The one thing I never thought about was that my husband would get dementia and that I would be a caregiver. He isn't all that bad off yet, but each TIA leaves him less able to think coherently than before. He is not the same person anymore, but I feel stuck. My health is good, we have enough money--but now we can't travel as we planned.

almost 5 years, said...

I hate the idea of getting older to I dread my birthday comming the pass few years and I'm in my 20's but I think its about not just aging but not being able to have fun like are kids seves had. About fitting what it means to be mature I'm still very young but I don't want to get older. I was in the hospital most my child and teen years, so I feel like my childhood and my youngth was rob from me quite a bit. The thing is most the stuff we fear is because someone told us to fear so the can make money off you. Companies build inscurity on people and tell them how they can fix it with vanity creams, low carbs, for women and beer, mascquline tatics for men. If we had more stuff out in popculture securing women's feeling as they age I bet we would changes in percentages about some of these fears. There are guys who crack jokes about date older women but then they she a celeb on tv & their like shez hot. Then I'll be like you know she is 20years older then you. Really? yeah I don't care. But I thought you don't like older women. WITH HER I DO! I hear stuff like that all the time. Remember ladies their are who prefer older ladies to younger some who prefer big ladies to skinny. There are over 7billion people on the planet everyone is not going to like the same thing. Be yourself your someone's preference.

over 5 years, said...

I thought I was the only one with this fear. My husband has laughed at this fear for years. I save everything, have become something of a hoarder, because I might need it someday. Money is no longer an issue, but being alone and out on the street still lingers in my mind. I have been a caregiver to 2 moms and a dad for the last 14 years; l can't envision my children doing the same for me and my husband. Yes, I have little faith where my kids are concerned.

over 5 years, said...

all the information,especially things to do to remain healthy and attractive at old age.

over 5 years, said...

By the way, I lived in my vehicle for almost a year. Had I been in a warmer clime, I would have continued. It was fun to me, but I was working and schooling full-time. I miss those days often and think about how much money I saved. I'll do it again if the need or occasion arises, but I'll move south when I do. I trust God for all things. Read the book of Matthew. Not one comment has mentioned trusting God. That's a large part of the burden you carry. One day at a time in His care.

over 5 years, said...

Fear-mongering...that's why regurgitated articles like this one are circulated. Media propaganda is used to destroy confidence, self-worth. It's the only way they get you to spend money and distract you with worries while they cooperate with evil entities to destroy the world. Pay no attention, stay happy.

over 5 years, said...

It talked about my own fears, I deal with. I'm 77 and I have not accepted my ageing gracefully. Also facing left shoulder replacement very soon.

over 5 years, said...

Being male, quite some of this may be past me, but not actually! The various lady friends can be better understood from outside after being imbued with these various thoughts & considerations. But always try to look on the bright side of it all, when things get you down, start looking up: advice as old as the hills, but apt & fresh as tomorrow morning's dew! Pass that approach along really, to all & sundry, for a start. Older can also be attractive: spirit, personality, charm are all factors that transcend any calendar!