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May 05, 2022

Can an optimistic attitude help you live longer? It certainly can't hurt

People who hold positive perceptions of older adults' capabilities are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, which can extend their lives, research shows

Men's Health 50-Plus Men
Aging Optimism Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Positive beliefs about aging can translate into a more active lifestyle and add 7.5 years to your life, Yale University researcher Becca Levy asserts in her new book, "Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live."

 In December 2020, deep into the COVID-19 pandemic, just as the vaccines were coming out and we were stressed over a Christmas in isolation, I wrote about the power of optimism on our health and well-being.

It was a message for the moment, designed to offer a strategy for managing COVID through what would be a difficult holiday season. I presented evidence that listed the benefits of a positive attitude: reduced depression, less distress, better cardiovascular health, boosted coping skills and a longer life.

I was fascinated by the experts' findings, especially those from the Harvard Medical School that showed how optimism helps people cope with disease and recover from surgery, and that optimists are much more likely to stay healthy and enjoy independent living.

It was one of many articles I have written on the power of the mind-body connection. That's why I was so intrigued by new research that takes the mind-body relationship to a whole new level, and shows how your beliefs about aging can have a dramatic impact on your well-being, and even add years to your life!

"Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live" is a new book from aging expert Becca Levy of Yale University. In the book, Levy presents research that shows how positive beliefs about aging can translate into a more active lifestyle and actually add 7.5 years to your life.

By examining more than 400 scientific studies, and comparing negative and positive beliefs about aging, Levy found that individuals with negative perceptions of older people as incompetent, dependent or even senile experienced greater stress and were less engaged in healthy behaviors. When the opposite was true, positive beliefs on the capabilities of aging individuals translated into greater resilience and activity.

Levy argues that "with the right mindset, and tools, we can change our age beliefs," and suggests that the impact of these beliefs are stronger than high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity and smoking. Incredibly powerful conclusions and confirmation of the strength of our convictions. Other experts support Levy's conclusions.

The National Institute on Aging says that there are a number of misconceptions when it comes to the aging process. They include myths about depression and loneliness, sleep, personal learning, dementia and avoiding exercise to prevent injury. 

The Institute says that depression and loneliness are not an absolute in older people, and, in fact, are more common in younger individuals. The need for sleep does not decline with age. Older adults need just as much sleep as all adults, 7-9 hours a night. Aging adults can indeed learn new things, and the learning process can actually improve cognitive ability. Dementia is not inevitable and exercise, at any age, has much more benefits than being sedentary.

Adding further evidence on the mind-body connection to a longer life, and busting cultural tales on aging is Dr. Thomas Perls, an aging expert and director of the New England Centenarian Study at the Boston University School of Medicine.

"People used to say, 'the older you get the sicker you get,' he told the NIH in 2016. "But with common sense, healthy habits such as regular exercise, a healthy weight, avoiding red meat, not smoking, and managing stress, it can be 'the older you get, the healthier you've been.'"

Ingleside Communities, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that provides support services for those aging in place, echoes the sentiments of these experts. 

Ingleside submits that the benefits of having the right outlook include helping to manage stress, improvements to your immune system, decreasing your risk of depression, lowering the risk of heart disease, and making it less likely to develop a chronic disease. Its conclusion: if you master your attitude, all of these advantages can help you to age well and live longer.

And the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign reports that, despite the reinforcement of negative stereotypes in American culture, an upbeat attitude about growing older can help you live longer. The university says that these misguided perceptions promote the image that aging adults are senile, frail and cranky. The immediate concern is that such negativity may prompt you to conform to these stereotypes, align behavior to those low expectations and perform at lower functioning levels with age.

To avoid falling into this trap, the school recommends that we value the contributions, accomplishments and wisdom of aging adults as a means to generate a societal change in attitude toward aging that will affect older adults for the better. When armed with a sense of happiness and purpose, reinforced by a positive attitude, the researchers assert that older adults are more apt to suppress negative thoughts and carry on as competent, productive members of society.

'Ya Gotta Believe'

Baby boomers who are Phillies fans will remember the phrase "Ya Gotta Believe," coined by pitcher Tug McGraw. Though he developed the rallying cry as a New York Met in 1973, he brought it with him to Philly and it became an extremely popular expression during the Phillies' 1980 run to the World Series.

In the context of Levy's findings, the expression has applications beyond baseball, and can be considered as an appropriate mantra when it comes to finding happiness and fulfillment as we age. As Levy's new research shows, believing in your ability to maintain your skills, and even grow with age, is further reason to embark on a healthy lifestyle. When coupled with optimism, you further increase your chances for health and happiness.

Fifty-plus men (and women) should be inspired by this new science. It gives us the basis to reject aging stereotypes and redefine our cultural mindset. As boomers, we are wired to lead cultural changes in attitude. It's in our DNA. It's what we do. If there were ever a cause to get behind, this is it. I'm a believer. How about you?

Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website. 

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