Beat Back Father Time With a Positive Attitude
> 10/5/2006 10:15:50 AM

There is a hypothesis, one that has been gaining a lot of steam too, that as we age our health is effected by our very perceptions of aging and being old. We've all heard someone say, "You're only as old as you feel," and most of us have probably just brushed the comment off, especially if our knees have been particularly achy or our back particularly sore. But now there is some hard evidence, as well as a growing legion of doctors and researchers, that say positive mental state can go a long way to fighting off frailty.

Older adults are at a higher risk for depression and older men have the highest suicide rate of any demographic, and while these are serious concerns for all seniors, recent research has shown that even negative perceptions of aging can lead to drastic reductions in quality of life and physical health among the elderly. Today a story from the New York Times's series on aging examined two reasons why some of us live to be 76 and others 96: untreated heart disease and negative ideas about old age. Focusing on the mental health aspects of the piece, the story made several interesting points:
  • In a study by Dr. Becca Levy, seniors who were flashed positive words about aging like “guidance,” “wise,” “alert,” “sage” and “learned” as part of a memory test, and then were tested about what they saw scored better and they even walked faster. Those who were flashed negative words like “dementia,” “decline,” “senile,” “confused” and “decrepit” scored much more poorly, and their walking paces slowed.

  • In studies by Dr. Thomas Hess, older people did significantly worse on memory tests if they were first told something that would bring to mind aging stereotypes. It could be as simple as saying the study was on how aging affects learning and memory. They did better on memory tests if Dr. Hess first told them something positive, like saying that there was not much of a decline in memory with age.

  • Using data from the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement, Dr. Levy also found that people who had more positive views about aging were healthier over time. They lived an average of 7.6 years longer than those of a similar age who did not hold such views, and even had less hearing loss when their hearing was tested three years after the study began. The result persisted when the investigators took in account the participants’ health at the start of the study, as well as their age, gender, and socioeconomic status.
There are some detractors who say that causality is more difficult to prove, if not entirely impossible. It could be that those who are healthier report more positive ideas and feelings about aging compared to those who are or will become more frail. As the article is quick to point out, because of ethics issues, it would be impossible to do anything other than an indirect study like those of Drs. Hess and Levy.

Even with that being the case, the evidence is good that perceptions can shape realities and more and more doctors are joining the effort. There has been no small amount of consternation about the future of health care as we look forward to a country in which the baby boom generation is collecting social security. This new information, deployed by GPs and specialists throughout the country, could help keep aging Americans active, mobile and self-reliant much longer than previous generations.

One key is starting early. To truly change perceptions, we must make a concerted effort to highlight the positives, even in the necessary warnings about medical problems that come with getting older. We also must do a better job of identifying and treating depression in older Americans. This group is highly under-diagnosed and under-treated. Depression can be incredibly debilitating even in young, healthy individuals. In seniors, it can be even more fatal. By spotting and treating even mild forms of depression, we can ensure longer, and much happier and more fulfilling lives.

No comments yet.

Post Your Comments

Post a comment
Email Address:
Verification Code:
Input the 8 characters you see above:


Drug Abuse
Sexual Addiction
Eating Disorders
Alzheimer's Disease

About TOL | Contact Us | Defining Behavioral Fitness | For Healthcare Professionals | Links | Privacy Policy