How a positive attitude to aging can lead to a healthier life
At 87 years old, Paddy Jones and her salsa dancing have captivated audiences across the globe. In the Guinness World Records as the oldest acrobatic salsa dancer in the world, Jones challenges the stigma surrounding aging – stating she doesn’t feel or act her age. And she might be onto something, as research suggests that a positive mindset to aging can lead to a healthier and longer life. Conversely, negative beliefs about getting older can have devastating effects. In this Pacific Prime China article, we look at how positive expectations towards aging can affect one’s health.
Understanding the connection between body and mind
Studies from the past 50 years seem to tell us the same thing: we could all benefit from looking at aging more positively – as doing so seems to be equivalent to the fountain of youth. Those who look at the aging process as an opportunity for personal growth often experience better health well into their later years. Especially in contrast to those who believe they will decline and become more helpless with age. The differences between the mindsets can be seen in their cells’ biological aging and their life span in general.
While investigating the mind-body connection for his new book, writer David Robson was most surprised by the idea that one’s thoughts could affect aging and longevity. But there is plenty of evidence to support it, with various labs throughout the world using various measures and approaches arriving at the same conclusion.
Ellen Langer’s aging in reverse experiment
In 1979, psychologist Ellen Langer at Harvard University conducted a radical experiment that offered insight into the impact our thoughts and expectations have on the aging process. A group of 70 and 80-year-olds was asked to complete different physical and cognitive tests before going on a seven-day retreat at a monastery that had been redecorated in a late 1950s style. Everything from the decorations to the movies on TV to the music on the radio was historically accurate.
The participants were asked to live like it was the year 1959 and to write an autobiography for that era in the present tense. They were also told to behave as independently as they could, such as by not asking for help carrying their things. Twice a day, researchers organized discussions where participants talked about the events of 1959 as though they were currently happening. All these associations were intended to help them feel like their younger selves.
For comparison, the researchers later held a second retreat with a new group of participants. While the environment and interactions stayed the same, the participants were asked to think about the past instead of overtly behaving like they were living in that era. In brief, the initial group who lived like it was 1959 witnessed the greatest benefits, including sharper vision, increased joint flexibility, and more dexterous hands.
Despite the remarkable findings, Langer’s sample size was very small, and more evidence would be needed to back up the extraordinary claim that our thoughts could have an effect on our physical aging.
The power of positive thinking
Becca Levy at the Yale School of Public Health has been on a mission to provide that evidence. In one of her most outstanding papers to date, she examined data from the Ohio Longitude Study of Aging and Retirement that examined over 1,000 participants since 1975. 63 years old was the average age of the participants who were asked to offer their views on aging, such as by rating their agreement towards age-related statements.
Rather incredibly, Levy found those with a more positive attitude lived on for over 22 years (22.6) after the study began while those with more negative beliefs towards agings survived a mere 15 years. Since then, studies have continued to reinforce the association between people’s beliefs and their physical aging.
For instance, people in their mid-thirties with certain ageist beliefs are at greater risk of cardiovascular disease up to four decades later. Similarly, age beliefs may play a crucial role in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Age beliefs can keep us young
If you’re wondering how to stay young, you first have to understand the importance of behavior. Do you associate aging with becoming frail and weak? If so, you might exercise less as you get older and thereby increase your risk of certain illnesses. Our beliefs towards aging can have a direct impact on our physiology as well. For example, those who believe they are helpless will begin to feel more threatened by small challenges, which will increase cortisol and bodily inflammation over time.
Additionally, the cells of those with negative age beliefs appear biologically older than those with positive attitudes. The connection between age beliefs and health and longevity is virtually beyond doubt for many scientists. And people of all generations need to be aware of its implications.
Our culture continuously feeds us the idea that aging is bad. Just take a look at birthday cards and you’ll see older people shown as absentminded or confused. Greater awareness and intolerance of age stereotypes is the way forward as a society. We also need to rethink our own perceptions of aging, as well as question and reject beliefs that we might have adopted over time.
And if you find it difficult to create a positive mindset, just think of Paddy Jones. Remember that it’s a positive attitude towards life at any age that will keep us healthy and strong for years to come.
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