April 19, 2013 by KAREN FOSTER
Age is nothing but a number, according to new research that suggests you’re only as old as you let yourself feel. A study has shown that people who perceive themselves to be old and frail are more likely to give up activities which could help to keep them young — such as socializing and taking regular exercise.
By contrast, people with a positive attitude are more likely to continue taking part in these activities which helps them to stay fit and mentally alert.
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A study of 660 adults aged 50 and older from an Ohio community, published in 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.
Krystal Warmoth, from the University of Exeter, believes that older people who categorise themselves as elderly and decrepit are more likely to behave as though they are.
She interviewed 29 older people in the southwest of England and asked them about their experiences of aging and fragility.
She discovered that an elderly person’s attitude could lead to a loss of interest in participating in social and physical activities, poor health, and reduced quality of life.
One respondent summed up the findings: ‘If people think that they are old and frail, they will act like they’re old and frail,’ she said.
Ms Warmoth also discovered there can be a cycle of decline whereby perceiving oneself as frail can lead to a person disengaging from activities that could reduce the likelihood of frailty – such as physical exercise.
This, in turn, makes them more likely to become frail and to have a poor quality of life.
Ms Warmoth said: ‘This study gives an insight into the role of psychological factors in older adults’ health and activity levels.’
However, plenty of elderly people are clearly following Ms Warmoth’s advice.
A 2010 report from the Health Protection Agency found a rise in the number of people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s having sex with new partners since 2000.
The study also found that there had been an increase in all of the five main STDs in older age groups, with the age group 45 to 64 witnessing the biggest rise in syphilis, herpes, chlamydia and genital warts between 2000 and 2009.
Mounting evidence suggest that happiness might be at least as powerful a predictor for aging, if not a more powerful predictor than some of the other lifestyle factors such as diet and physical activity.
Andrew Steptoe, the British Heart Foundation Professor of Psychology at University College London, has found that happier people also have greater protection against things like heart disease and stroke.
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.
Meanwhile, researchers at North Carolina State University found that elderly people who played video games had ‘higher levels of well-being’.
They asked 140 people aged 63 and above how long they play games for, then put them through tests to asses their emotional and social well-being.
Sixty-one per cent of participants said they played video games ‘at least occasionally’, while 35 per cent said they played at least once per week.
The results of the study indicated that those who played games occasionally reported higher levels of well-being, whereas those that did not play reported ‘negative emotions and a tendency toward higher levels of depression’.
Karen Foster is a holistic nutritionist, avid blogger, with five kids and an active lifestyle that keeps her in pursuit of the healthiest path towards a life of balance.