July 29, 2002 -- If you look forward to aging with the same enthusiasm with which you anticipate root canals, you may want to consider making an attitude adjustment.
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, Md.
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," adds Suzman.