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A Sunny Outlook on Aging Lengthens Life

Study finds people with positive perceptions live 7.5 years longer

MONDAY, July 29, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Starting to notice a few gray hairs? Don't worry, be happy.

A positive attitude about aging may actually help you live longer. On the other hand, if you have a tarnished view of your golden years, you may cut your life short, says a study in the August issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

The study found that older people with positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than people with negative self-perceptions about getting older.

That negative attitude may shorten your life by affecting your will to live, says lead author Becca R. Levy, an assistant professor of epidemiology and public health at Yale University.

Levy says she wasn't surprised by this study's finding that aging self-perception affects a person's lifespan. Her previous research indicated that's the case. But she hadn't expected to find such a significant impact.

The study included 660 people (338 men and 322 women) from a small Ohio town who in 1975 gave responses to questions asked as part of the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement. At the time they gave their responses, all the people were 50 or older. They were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as, "As you get older, you are less useful."

"In this study, we did a snapshot of their perception of aging," Levy says.

She and her co-authors compared the participants' responses to their death rates over the past 23 years and found that people with more positive attitudes toward aging had 7.5 years higher longevity.

That finding takes into account other factors such as age, gender, overall health, loneliness, and socioeconomic status.

While the effect of negative attitudes about aging on the will to live does have an impact on longevity, it isn't the only influence, Levy says. Her research indicates that those negative stereotypes of aging may also have an adverse influence on older people's cardiovascular response to everyday stress.

Where do we get these pessimistic thoughts about growing old?

Levy says we pick them up from society and we may not even be aware it's happening.

"Stereotypes of aging are probably internalized in childhood or adulthood and carried through into old age," Levy says.

She suggests people consciously challenge gloomy views about aging.

"I think older adults can think about ways to question some of the negative stereotypes that they encounter in everyday life. I think there is reason to believe that that may have a positive impact over time," Levy says.

A leading psychologist who promotes mental and emotional health as a key to longevity praised the research, even if he didn't find the conclusion earth-shattering.

"I think the study was very well-defined and very well done," says Michael Brickey, author of the book Defy Aging. "I don't find the results all that surprising. To me, they kind of fit with common sense."

Brickey says the findings remind him of research on optimism by University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin E.P. Seligman.

"He found that optimists live longer, healthier, happier, they're more successful, they earn more money -- on and on," Brickey says.

The study's focus on the connection between the will to live and longevity impressed Brickey.

"It's what I'd normally call sense of purpose in life. I think that having a sense of purpose is one of the real keys, and it's become trickier and trickier," he says.

Fifty years ago, the typical American grew up and lived his entire life in the same town, stayed married to one person, and worked for the same company until he retired.

"There weren't as many choices and options. Now, we have so much change and so much choice that it's easy to lose your footing," Brickey says. "So we need to periodically take a look at our sense of purpose and make sure that we haven't lost our footing."

Brickey suggests negative stereotypes of aging can be countered by promoting role models of vital, active older people and by encouraging people to blaze their own trails as they grow older instead of succumbing to negative ideas and expectations.

What To Do

To help keep your outlook positive, Michael Brickey offers 36 defy-aging beliefs. Older Americans can find information about health and wellness at the AARP.

SOURCES: Becca R. Levy, Ph.D., assistant professor, department of epidemiology and public health, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; Michael Brickey, Ph.D., psychologist, Bexley, Ohio; August 2002 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
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