Aging: You Are What You…Think?

Attitude is everything. You’re only as old as you feel. There are tons of old adages designed to communicate the same basic principle: Your emotional state has a huge impact on your physical health. Now, research is showing that older people are heavily affected by their own thoughts and attitudes.

Specifically, the way we feel about the concept of aging based on old stereotypes which may have been instilled during childhood can affect the way you age. If you believe aging is a negative process, that your life won’t be fulfilling when you’re older or that you’ll become useless and helpless, you’re more likely to develop illnesses associated with aging and may die sooner than your peers who have a positive outlook on the aging process.

Subliminal messaging impacts task performance

Attitude on aging

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A recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) takes a look at this pattern, finding that older people with positive expectations of aging have an easier time recovering from trauma or age-related disability. Seniors with positive feelings about aging are 44 percent more likely to recover from a brief bout of disability than their more negative-thinking peers.

The New York Times reports on the work of Becca Levy, associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University. Dr. Levy has been investigating the effects of attitude on health and well-being for about two decades, beginning with a laboratory experiment gauging the impact of subliminal messaging.

In Dr. Levy’s early research, she showed older adults a series of words flashed on computer screen too quickly for them to process. But when those adults were later asked to perform a task, the nature of the words they were shown had a big impact on their ability to complete the task.

Those who were showed negative words associated with aging, such as weak, decrepit or dependent, “had poorer handwriting, slower walking speeds, higher levels of cardiovascular stress and a greater willingness to reject hypothetical medical interventions that could prolong their lives,” describes the Times. The other group, exposed to more positive words like wise or resourceful, were able to perform tasks with much more ease.

Internal attitudes affect lifespan

This was just the beginning of Levy’s research. Because this early study showed the effects of external stimuli, Levy was interested in learning about preconceived, internal values and beliefs. Levy consulted prior research, published in The Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, which followed a group of adults for 23 years after an initial survey of their stereotypes on aging. What she found was that out of 660 participants, those who initially reported more positive attitudes and beliefs lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those with the opposite beliefs.

All in all, to date Levy’s research has produced some interesting findings. After further research into the same group and controlling for external influences such as socioeconomic status, gender, race and illness, positive beliefs and emotions have been linked to:

  • Healthier, balanced diets
  • Ample exercise
  • Limited alcohol consumption
  • Smoking cessation
  • Regular physical exams
  • Overall higher levels of physical functioning over time

What’s your attitude on aging?

Levy’s latest research is just a single, small study, but other experts have confirmed that the findings (that those with positive attitudes have a better capability to recover after short-term disability) are in line with their clinical observations over decades of practice.

What can we take away from this? While there will likely be more advanced research into how our stereotypes, attitudes and beliefs affect our body’s ability to cope with and recover from stress and trauma related to aging, we move forward with knowledge that our emotional health and beliefs ingrained in us long ago will affect us as we age.

Can we change the outcome? It’s certainly logical to assume that working towards a healthier attitude about aging will improve both our physical and emotional ability to recover and remain independent as we age. Until more research tells us exactly how we can influence our own minds and bodies with attitude, it’s a good idea to start thinking happy thoughts.

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