Nov. 21, 2012 -- Older patients with positive attitudes on aging may be more likely to fully recover from severe disability compared with those who can't see the bright side of life, a new study found.
A positive stereotype about aging was associated with a 44 percent greater likelihood of recovery from severe disability versus negative stereotypes, according to study author Becca Levy from the Yale School of Public Health and colleagues.
Holding positive stereotypes in older age was also significantly associated with a slower rate of decline in activities of daily living, the researchers wrote in a letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association online.
"Further research is needed to determine whether interventions to promote positive age stereotypes could extend independent living in later life," the authors noted.
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The researchers sampled patients through the Precipitating Events Project study and included 598 mostly female patients with an average age of 79, who belonged to a Connecticut health plan. All participants lived in a community, were nondisabled, and experienced at least 1 month of disability from active daily life during the follow-up period.
The participants were interviewed monthly for up to 129 months and filled out home-based assessments every 18 months over 10 years.
The researchers established age stereotypes by asking participants for five terms or phrases they associated with older individuals and coding those descriptors on a five-point scale, with 1 being most negative (such as decrepit) and 5 being most positive (such as spry). The participants scored a mean 2.12 on this scale.
Participants' severity of disability was based on the number of activities of daily living compromised by disability, including bathing, dressing, transferring, and walking. Three or four compromised activities were considered severely disabled; mild to severe disability required assistance with one to two activities, and mild to no disability required no assistance with activities of daily life.
The researchers grouped patients on whether they held positive or negative age stereotypes and compared rates of recovery from severe or mild injury to no or mild disability. Patients between groups were well-matched for age, sex, nonwhite ethnicity, frailty, education, chronic conditions, mental status, depression, and whether or not they lived alone. The nature of the disabling events was not described.
Patients were significantly more likely to recover from any state of injury to either no or mild disability if they fit positive age stereotypes, including from severe disability to no disability, severe disability to mild disabilit and mild disability to no disability.
The researchers also noted that the positive age-stereotyped patients "showed an advantage in the absolute risk increase percentages" in likelihood of recovery, in addition to "a significantly slower rate of [activities of daily life] decline."
Study limitations included recruitment from a single community and an undersampling of black patients.