Positive Aging

Positive thinking will not only make you a happier person, it may also improve your overall health later in life, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Researchers at the Yale School of Public Health hypothesized that older persons with positive age stereotypes, or beliefs about old people as a category, would be more likely to recover from disability than those with negative age stereotypes. The authors rated participants' quality of life based on four essential activities of daily living: bathing, dressing, transferring, and walking, all of which are associated with the use of health care services and longevity.

According to researchers, having a positive attitude may promote recovery from disability by limiting the cardiovascular response to stress, improving physical balance, enhancing self-efficacy, and increasing engagement in healthy behaviors.

The Expert Take

“Little research has been conducted on factors that account for why some older persons recover from disability and others do not. We considered a new culture-based explanatory factor: age stereotypes,” said Becca R. Levy, Ph.D., and her colleagues.  

The team found that older people with positive age stereotypes were 44 percent more likely to fully recover from severe disability than those with negative age stereotypes. The positive age stereotype group also had a significantly slower rate of decline among each of the four essential daily activities.

“Further research is needed to determine whether interventions to promote positive age stereotypes could extend independent living in later life,” researchers said.

Source and Method

Study participants were interviewed monthly for up to 11 years, and completed home-based assessments every 18 months from March 1998 through December 2008. All participants were 70 years old or older and were community-living, non-disabled, and could independently perform the four essential activities of daily living (ADL).

Participants responded to the baseline age stereotype measure, and experienced at least one month of ADL disability during follow-up (117 participants remained non-disabled). The final sample consisted of 598 participants.

Age stereotypes were assessed by asking, "When you think of old persons, what are the first five words or phrases that come to mind?" Responses, coded on a five-item scale ranging from 1 (most negative) to 5 (most positive), were averaged.

The Takeaway

These findings suggest that a positive attitude can go a long way, and that our minds are deeply connected to our bodies and the way we feel. While further research is required, these findings could lead to positive-thinking interventions that help the elderly live longer, more fulfilling lives.

Other Research

While research on this topic is scarce, many studies have approached the subject of attitudes and the elderly from different methods and perspectives. One study published in the journal Educational Gerontology in 1986, challenged undergraduate students to change their attitudes toward aging in a positive direction. To do this, three experimental groups participated in a workshop series consisting of three single sessions, presented in a different order to each group. The total workshop series was successful in changing attitudes toward the elderly and of the single workshop sessions, direct experience with an elderly couple was found to be the most effective.

Regarding old age stereotypes, a study published in The Gerontologist in 2003 defined successful aging among Canadian males. The study followed a cohort of 3,983 World War II Royal Canadian Air Force male aircrew recruits since July 1, 1948. At a mean age of 78 years in 1996, the survivors were surveyed and asked for their definition of successful aging. Researchers found that many of the responses reflected an individual's attitudes toward life and the aging process. “Current life satisfaction, self-rated health, and limitation in activities of daily living were significantly associated with an increased likelihood of reporting specific themes in definitions.”

And an article published in Geriatric Psychiatry in 2004 discussed the association between depression and disability in the elderly, observing that “the high prevalence of disability in old age might be expected to have a profound effect on the quality of life at this stage of life and to be accompanied by high rates of depression.”