If you hate the thought of getting old, you may be shortening your life.
That’s the conclusion of researchers from Yale and Miami universities. Their study found that older individuals with more positive self-perceptions of aging, measured up to 23 years earlier, lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging.
“Self-perceptions of aging had a greater impact on survival than did gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness, and functional health,” said the researchers, who studied 660 individuals aged 50 and older.
This study ties into the lecture on resilience that I wrote about Monday. The ability to bounce back from adversity is deeply influenced by how you think about the problem. The more you can get free of one-dimensional thinking, often stemming from psychological needs, the more options you have for assessing a problem and finding solutions.
Unfortunately, our youth-oriented culture promotes many negative stereotypes about aging that are hard to ignore and easy to internalize. Buying into this negativity can be life-threatening for the elderly. As the researchers note compellingly:
If a previously unidentified virus was found to diminish life expectancy by over 7 years, considerable effort would probably be devoted to identifying the cause and implementing a remedy. In the present case, one of the likely causes is known: societally sanctioned denigration of the aged. A comprehensive remedy requires that the denigrating views and actions directed at elderly targets undergo delegitimization by the same society that has been generating them.
Even when the elderly can fight off society’s negative stereotypes, other obstacles to upbeat thinking present themselves. When my mother was 88 and afflicted with medical problems that would soon take her life, I asked her about her outlook on life. She reflected on this question for a while and said: “I used to think that things always worked out for the best. Now I’m not so sure.”
At 60, I had to accept the fact that the arthritic pain in my left hip could cripple me in a few years. Hip-replacement surgery eliminated the pain overnight and enabled me to resume my active lifestyle, including playing full-court basketball. What a boost to my feeling of resilience.
Even so, the operation clearly signaled what road I was on and where it would lead. The reality of death casts a long shadow over the effort to stay upbeat when you’re elderly. That’s why there’s truth in the saying: Old age ain’t for sissies.