A good attitude could be the best medicine for senior citizens facing stressful situations.
According to a new study out of North Carolina State University, maintaining a positive attitude on aging gives seniors more resiliency during adversity.
Researchers had 43 participants between the ages of 60 and 96 each complete the same questionnaire for eight consecutive days.
Among other things, participants were asked if they felt as useful now as they had been when they were younger, and whether they were as happy now as when they were younger.
It also asked about their stress levels and the effects of negative emotions such as fear or distress.
"We found that people in the study who had more positive attitudes toward aging were more resilient in response to stress — meaning that there wasn't a significant increase in negative emotions," Jennifer Bellingtier, a North Carolina State student and lead study author, said in a statement.
Bellingtier added that other study participants with more negative attitudes toward aging had higher negative emotional effects on stressful days.
Why attitude counts
Dr. Shevaun Neupert, an associate professor of psychology from the university and senior author of the study, said the results show that how we approach aging can impact how we respond to difficult situations as we age.
"That affects our quality of life and may also have health ramifications. For example, more adverse emotional responses to stress have been associated with increased cardiovascular health risks," she said in a statement.
Neupert added that attitudes can vary according to cultures, and her study was likely reflective of Americans but not older people around the world.
Neupert told Healthline that researchers are in the middle of a larger follow-up study that will include information from younger adults in order to see if the same results are true for younger populations.
She said the way attitudes are measured suggests there can be internal and external sources of different attitudes.
“It is likely that some aspects of these attitudes would be easier to shift than others,” she said.
Feeling useful despite age, for example, could be linked to feelings of control. Therefore, a person who felt less useful could work on their feelings of control to increase their positive attitude.
Control is positively associated with mental, physical, and cognitive health, Neupert added.
In general, research has shown that positive attitudes about aging in midlife and old age are linked to delays with the onset of cognitive decline, longevity, and cardiovascular events, said Dr. Thomas M. Hess, a psychologist at North Carolina State University.
Although scientists aren’t sure why this is the case, Hess said the perceived lack of control related to aging may cause people to exercise or engage in social activity less or not at all.
He also noted that having a sense of control can influence how we respond to stress.
Changing our attitudes about aging can be as simple as staying connected to others as we age.
“Reducing isolation will go a long way in helping people have positive outlooks as we age,” Theresa Nguyen, a social worker and senior director of policy and programs with Mental Health America, told Healthline.
Seniors can mentor younger people, take classes, or volunteer, especially if they are retired, as new roles can help maintain a sense of self-worth.
In her work with older adults, Nguyen found many seniors were homebound and coping with retirement or the loss of a spouse.
Many people reflected on the past, which could bring on positive thoughts, but nothing changed until they connected with others.
“Intergenerational centers, where preschools and nursing homes are integrated, are a great example of an innovative and powerful way to meet two needs while reducing isolation,” she said.
What we tell ourselves can be as important as how we spend our golden years.
Hess’ 2009 study published in the journal Experimental Aging Research concluded people who thought their memory would get worse with age were right.
Researchers concluded that if older adults are told that older people typically do poorly on a test, they did worse than those who were not told. If they think they’re being looked down on because of age, it can contribute to poor performance.
It is important for older adults to have strong self-esteem, as it can help them cope with potential health threats that typically occur in senior adults, a 2014 study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology reported.
Researchers found that in people over the age of 60, cortisol increased if their self-esteem decreased, so making sure this doesn’t happen is imperative.
Hess said that simple exposure to positive images of aging can help people develop better attitudes and maybe even embrace the process.
Paul Gionfriddo, president and chief executive officer of Mental Health America, told Healthline that people need to know that depression and anxiety are not natural parts of aging.
Instead they are treatable health conditions that seniors can take steps to overcome.
“I think we’re seeing more receptivity [to treatment], not less, because each generation of seniors feels just a little younger than the generation that came before it,” he said.