Your attitude to ageing can determine how long you live. A new study shows that people who feel their age or older are more likely to die sooner, writes Margaret Jennings.
FEELING ‘young at heart’ is not so much a blithe cliché as an optimistic perspective that may prolong the lives of older people.
People aged 65 who said they felt three or more years younger than their age had a lower death rate from cardiovascular issues, over the course of eight years, than people who felt their age or older.
Researchers at University College London, who studied 6,500 men and women, found those who felt older had a 41% greater risk of death than those who felt younger. Although some of the differences in participants’ perspectives were accounted for by their health and lifestyle, there was still a significant protective benefit to feeling younger. People who feel younger may have healthier habits and more resilience, and therefore a stronger will to live.
If all of us just took a more positive approach to ageing, would we benefit greatly? Is it that simple? “Feeling younger as you get older is a very complex phenomenon,” says psychologist, Dr Michael Hogan, an academic at NUIG who researches ageing and development.
But the study adds further to the belief that older adults who feel younger do better, he says. “Some of the qualities that may be linked to feeling younger include being vital, positive, optimistic, open, how people explain positive and negative events, and possibly even social factors such as the quality of their romantic relationships, love life, social support and intimate ongoing communication with friends and neighbours.”
The Berlin Longitudinal Study, of 1999, confirmed that dissatisfaction with ageing was a principle factor in predicting how long people lived — after controlling for 17 indicators of psychological functioning, including intellectual ability, personality, subjective well-being and social ability.
One of the most powerful influences on feeling younger is the shared experience of a relationship, says Hogan. “I see my own parents — my dad is 70 and my mum a couple of years younger — and how important their relationship with one another is. Their talk extends across decades of life experience, and their connection with their youth continuously brings them in touch with their youthful selves. I see the importance of their relationship with extended family and old friends.”
However, society’s attitude to ageing can also influence self-perspective. “How wise is it for us to say, for instance, that ageing is a period of decay or decline? It’s a mindless stereotype. Negative stereotypes of ageing serve no useful purpose,” he says.
Negative stereotypes — for example, around ageing and memory — impact on older adults’ performance and their expectation of themselves.
In the British research, death by heart disease was hastened for those who felt their age, or older. Research in 2000, says Hogan, noted that older adults’ cardiovascular stress response was much reduced when they were primed with positive-ageing stereotypes. “They were given positive age stereotypes around ageing people being more insightful, wise and accomplished, for instance, instead of negative ones of being dependent, confused and senile.”
Hogan is a big fan of Harvard psychological scientist, Ellen Langer, who has shown that allowing older people control and choice can influence them positively. “In one of the classic research studies in this area, Langer and her colleague, Rodin, demonstrated that giving elderly residents in a nursing home the autonomy to make decisions about a plant they were asked to care for increased their sense of general wellbeing.”
The nursing-home residents who were given more autonomy lived longer. Research in 2002, says Hogan, suggests that younger adults who mindlessly endorse statements such as ‘As you get older, you are less useful’, do not live as long as adults who have a more positive view of ageing.
Thirteen years later, although we live in a youth-obsessed culture, more people are living longer and many public icons — in popular culture and political fields — are leading the way positively into their older age.
This ‘can-do’ attitude may reinforce in society, and among older people, that ageing is just another stage of change in life, ratherthan one of the negative stereotypes that encourage helplessness and early mortality.
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