Is age really just a state of mind? Can a positive attitude really change the aging process?
Perhaps not the number, but how we age might be. A growing body of research suggests a person’s mindset – how they feel about growing old – may predict how much longer and how well they live as the years go by.
Several studies over the past 20 years suggest people with more positive attitudes about aging live longer, healthier lives than those with negative perceptions of the aging process. Recently, a large nationwide study of nearly 14,000 adults over age 50 took an even deeper look into the ways in which positive thinking about aging could impact a person’s physical health, health behaviors and psychological well-being.
How having a positive attitude helps
Published in JAMA Network Open, the study found those with the highest satisfaction with aging had a 43% lower risk of dying from any cause during four years of follow-up compared to those with the lowest satisfaction. People with higher satisfaction also had a reduced risk for chronic conditions such as diabetes, stroke, cancer and heart disease, as well as better cognitive functioning. People with a more positive attitude about growing old also were more likely to engage in frequent physical activity and less likely to have trouble sleeping than their less-satisfied peers. They also were less lonely, less likely to be depressed, more optimistic and had a stronger sense of purpose.
“There’s a connection between mindsets and health behaviors,” says Eric Kim, the study’s senior investigator and an assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. “One leads to the other.”
For example, while older adults tend to use preventive health services less frequently than younger or middle-aged adults, a study Kim co-wrote in the journal Preventive Medicine shows that the more satisfied people over 50 are with how they’re aging, the more likely they’ll have their cholesterol tested or be screened for breast, cervical or prostate cancer.
But it cuts both ways. While having a positive attitude can lead to behaviors that promote good health, “if people believe poor health is inevitable with age, this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy that keeps them from behaviors that will help with aging,” says Kim, who also is an affiliate researcher at the Center for Health and Happiness at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
“The good news is, these views we hold about aging are changeable. We can shift our mindset,” says Hannah Giasson, who co-wrote the Preventive Medicine study with Kim and others. She is an assistant professor at the Arizona State University Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation in Phoenix and specializes in the relationship between people’s views on aging and their health and well-being.
Here are things Kim and Giasson say can help people develop a more positive approach to aging.
Maintain a sense of purpose
Some people aren’t sure what to do with themselves after they retire, Kim says. He suggests finding projects that align with your values.
“People’s purposes can be quite different,” he adds. If family is a high priority, find things to do that contribute to the family, such as helping