Can you think yourself young?
That was the title of a recent Guardian article exploring research into positive attitudes to ageing. A positive attitude, the author suggested, can lead to a longer and healthier life, while negative beliefs can be very detrimental indeed.
Is there hard evidence for such a claim, or is this happy-clappy nonsense?
One well-known study by Yale psychologist Prof Becca Levy asked people whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “As you get older, you are less useful”, “Things keep getting worse as I get older”, and “I am as happy now as I was when I was younger”.
Result: Levy found people who had more positive attitudes to ageing lived for 7.5 years longer than those who focused on the negatives.
Since Levy’s 2002 paper, multiple international studies have documented the negative impact of age stereotypes on older people’s health. As part of its global campaign against ageism, the World Health Organisation (WHO) asked Prof Levy to lead its analysis into the subject.
Examining 422 studies involving seven million people across 45 countries, it found evidence that ageism led to worse outcomes in various mental health conditions, including depression, and a number of physical health conditions – including shorter life expectancy.
Why? A number of factors may be at play. One suggestion is negative attitudes to ageing may drive physiological stress and increased bodily inflammation, ultimately resulting in poorer physical health.
And psychological factors are undoubtedly relevant, in that they drive unhelpful behaviours. If you have a fatalistic attitude to ageing, you may be less likely to exercise, to eat well and look after yourself, to try new things and learn new skills.
None of this is good – particularly so when it comes to exercise and inactivity. Irish research – more specifically, the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) – has found lower levels of physical activity in older people are associated with lower levels of life satisfaction as well as higher levels of stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms.
Similarly, if you see old age as a time of inevitable decline, frailty and social isolation, you are more likely to withdraw from society. Thus, negative expectations can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Of course, it’s also true that thinking positively does not guarantee you will live a long and healthy life. Some “wellness” practitioners take messages from positive psychology way too far. They can stray into magical thinking – for example, the dangerous notion that thinking positive can cure various diseases – and victim-blaming (“I must have made myself sick by not being positive enough”).
The reality is, you can be lucky or unlucky with your health. You can be happy and live a perfectly healthy lifestyle only to receive unexpected and devastating medical news – that’s life.
Still, it’s clear that having a positive attitude to ageing is beneficial in multiple respects, helping people to maintain a sense of purpose as they age.
FAUCI AND BECK
One person who exemplifies this sense of purpose is 81-year-old Dr Anthony Fauci, who didn’t take a day off for 14 months during the pandemic and who power walks three to four miles each evening. Asked last year about retiring, he responded, ‘It’s ridiculous to think about retiring, we’ve just got to get through this’.
Similarly, the founder of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), Dr Aaron Beck, continued to be excited by his work until he died last November at the age of 100. Two days before his death, Beck spent hours on the phone with a colleague discussing a paper they were working on detailing how best to help patients with severe mental illnesses. Indeed, Beck’s desire to work became more urgent after a fall that broke his hip some months earlier. He was worried, his colleague said, that he would die before he finished the paper.
Many older people may not have Dr Beck or Dr Fauci’s zest for work, and that’s absolutely fine. Rather, the point is to challenge limiting thoughts (“Maybe I’m too old to do XYZ”) about ageing. Instead, aim to stay active and do what you love for as long as you can do it.
(First published in Southern Star on 17/02/2022)