If you think of yourself as “over the hill” or believe “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, you may be hastening your own demise.
That’s because the link between beliefs surrounding aging and actual longevity is very well established. But there’s good news. According to a new study, even if you currently have a negative attitude about the way your body is aging, it’s never too late to start thinking positively and add years to your life.
Western society is bombarded with negative stereotypes regarding aging. Elderly people are depicted as grumpy, old fashioned, set in their ways, even a burden on society.
Yet in Japan it’s a very different story… elderly folks are revered. There’s even an annual public holiday that honors and celebrates Japan’s elderly citizens called Respect for the Aged.
Could this contribute to why Japan has the oldest population of any country in the world?
The evidence suggests that the answer is yes.
Think Young to Keep the Brain Young
Almost 20 years ago researchers published a major and robust study that included more than seven thousand British men and women between the ages of 40 and 60. Over the seven years follow up, participants who believed old age starts at 60 or earlier, compared to those who believed it starts at 70 or later, had a much higher risk of dying from heart disease and had poorer overall health.
The reason for this, the researcher concluded, is that beliefs around when old age begins “acts as a general summary of perceived rate of aging, and thereby predicts future health outcomes.”
Then, in 2018, researchers published the first study to find a direct link between subjective age and brain aging. Lead researcher Dr. Jeanyung Chey explained the results, saying, “We found that people who feel younger have the structural characteristics of a younger brain.”
Another study published last year on nearly two thousand people between the ages of 80 and 103 found that a positive attitude to aging was a significant and independent predictor of late-life survival.
The researcher who has delved the deepest into this subject is Dr. Becca Levy of Yale University. After decades in the field, she recently made a remarkable statement.
You Can add More than Seven Years to Your Life
“Positive age beliefs,” she claims, “are better for you than low blood pressure or even giving up smoking.” She continued: “In study after study I conducted, I found that older people with more positive perceptions of aging perform better physically and cognitively than those with more negative perceptions of aging. They are more likely to recover from severe disability, they remember better, they walk faster, and they live longer.”
For example, one her studies included 660 Americans aged 50 and older who her team followed up on after 23 years. Even taking multiple factors that affect health and aging into account, Dr. Levy found that those with more positive self-perceptions of their own aging lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions.
But what can you do if you can’t stop thinking you have less pep than last year or you’re becoming less useful as time passes?
In her new book, Breaking The Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long And Well You Live, Dr. Levy outlines evidence-based ideas for how you can build better beliefs about aging.
Five Ways to Remain Upbeat about Aging
- Focus on positive-aging role models – These can be sources of inspiration, motivation, and growth. People like Bonnie Garmus, who had a bestseller with her first novel published this year at the age of 64, or Iris Apfel, who at 100 is described as “one of the most vivacious personalities in the worlds of fashion, textiles, and interior design.”
- Don’t regard aging as the cause of problems – Never consider a memory slip up, health concern or some other challenge as being a result of your age.
- Write down any portrayal of aging you see – Do this for anything you come across on TV, in conversation, street signs, advertising etc., for one week. Also note situations that don’t include older people. Become aware of ageism and how you can avoid falling into negative attitudes that lower your self-worth.
- Connect across the age range – Take part in any intergenerational activities in your area. These could be a choir, yoga class, acting group, book club, etc.
- Celebrate your birthdays – Don’t hide your age or shave off a few years. Instead, welcome them and all of the wisdom and experience they’ve brought you.
Finally, choose to be positive about the aging process and the changes it brings. Do this every chance you get and accept any fun opportunities that come your way. Because, as they say, getting older sure beats the alternative!