| Positive Attitudes About Aging
Are Increasing Longevity
That's because new research suggests having more positive thoughts
about getting older may help you live a longer life.
A study of 660 adults aged 50 and older from an Ohio community,
published in the August issue of the Journal of Personality
and Social Psychology, found that people who had positive
attitudes about aging lived more than seven years longer than
those with negative attitudes.
What's more, the effect of a positive attitude seemed to outweigh
other known influences on survival such as loneliness, gender,
tobacco use and even exercise.
"It is a strong finding [even] when these other factors are
taken into account," explains Becca Levy, lead author and assistant
professor of epidemiology and public health at Yale University
in New Haven, Conn.
The Effect of Attitude
While the results remain to be proven by other researchers,
the study does match up with other research findings indicating
links between positive outlook and good health.
For example, depression has been linked to poorer recovery from
heart attacks and stroke, and research has found that having a
positive outlook in general in your early 20s predicts survival
well into your 80s and 90s.
Yet until now, no one has specifically examined the effect of
how attitudes on growing older might impact mortality. Among the
negative ideas held about aging are that older people are less
competent, vital and able than they were when they were young.
"There is a view that aging is associated with frailty, decrepitude
and disability. And many people confuse aging with diseases,"
explains Dr. Richard Suzman, associate director for behavioral
and social research at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda,
Individuals may begin internalizing these less positive views
years before actually aging. "People have this overall image of
what the aging process [will be] like. You see these expectations
of how they are going to do over time," says Levy.
Stress is one possible mechanism by which these poor expectations
may shorten lifespan, researchers speculate. In other experimental
work, Levy has found that exposing older adults to negative stereotypes
about aging seems to affect their cardiovascular systems and how
they respond to everyday stressors.
"There is strong literature on how the stress response may predict
different kinds of health outcomes, so I think that's probably
one of the mechanisms," she adds.
A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
The good news is that the stereotypes about aging seem to be
changing as research demonstrates that growing older does not
necessarily mean growing sicker or less vital.
"One of the biggest findings we've had is that disability in
the older population has been declining," says Suzman. "Many declines
in functioning occur at a much later age than had been previously
thought and are often the result of specific diseases that can
be prevented or treated."
These findings may influence one's overall thoughts on aging
and help ward off a poor outlook on the future. And the latest
study's findings suggest that even when these negative attitudes
are present, they needn't be harmful.
"One of the positive messages of the study is that despite some
of the negative stereotypes of aging that people encounter in
everyday life, they are able to maintain positive self-perceptions
of aging," says Levy. "But the flip side of the study was that
there was a group that had the more negative self-perceptions
of aging and they probably have internalized some of the negative
societal stereotypes a little bit more."
What remains to be seen is whether altering societal perceptions
about aging will have any overall benefits on health or longevity
and what should be done to correct negative attitudes.
"Certainly on some level there is a self-fulfilling prophecy,
but it remains to be seen whether this finding would indeed stand
up to be replicated and whether it calls out for intervention,"
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