From ‘you’re as young as you feel’ to ‘age is just a number,’ our culture provides us with a wealth of adages urging us to take a positive attitude toward aging.
Perhaps these old chestnuts sound corny (or, worse yet, like whistling past the graveyard), but recent studies prove that people who embrace a positive attitude about aging have a lower risk of dementia.
In view of that, you won’t be surprised to learn that people who are pessimistic about aging may actually be helping to make their worst fears come true.
The way you look at things does matter, and you can choose the way you look at things. It has the charm of being something we’re able to control. Here’s how to put these home truths to work for you. . .
Science Proves the Power of Optimism
A 2018 study published in the journal PLOS One1 finds that older Americans with negative aging beliefs were more likely to develop dementia than their positive counterparts.
A team led by Becky Levy of the Yale School of Public Heath used survey results from the Health and Retirement Study2, a nationally representative study of more than 30,000 individuals 50 and older. Over a four year period, the researchers evaluated 4,765 people, with an average age of 72 years, who were free of dementia at the start of the study.
Participants were surveyed on their aging beliefs. For instance, they were queried on whether they were as happy now as they were when they were younger; whether they believed that things got better or worse with age, and if they felt less useful with age.
In addition, the researchers assessed the cognitive status of each participant by a standard test conducted over the phone. The assessment included such things as counting backward from 20, naming the president and vice president, and recalling a list of ten items. Participants were reassessed every two years.
Importantly, study participants provided saliva samples to see whether they had the APOE gene, which is linked with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Even with Alzheimer’s Gene, Positive Attitude Staved Off Dementia
Researchers discovered that those with positive age beliefs who carry the ε4 variant of the APOE gene were nearly 50 percent less likely to develop the disease than their negative peers.
Other study findings were striking, as well. A review of the entire study group reveals that those with a positive attitude toward aging experienced a 19 percent reduced risk of dementia.
“Age beliefs tend to be internalized early in life and then remain stable over the lifespan, without interventions, Levy and her fellow researchers wrote. “Our finding could provide a rationale for a public-health campaign to combat the societal sources of negative age beliefs.”
According to the study, one-fourth “of the population carries the ε4 variant of the APOE gene” but only 47 percent of those carriers will develop dementia.
Researchers can’t be sure why the remaining 53 percent don’t develop dementia, but “the results of this study suggest that positive age beliefs, which are modifiable and have been found to reduce stress, can act as a protective factor, even for older individuals at high risk of dementia.”
In other words, the gene is not a death sentence, and a positive outlook is one of the tools we have available to thwart it.
It’s Never Too Late to Get a Good Attitude
I know personally that the march of time can be challenging. But even if you are a diehard pessimist about aging, it’s never too late to rewire your brain, experts say.
In a previous study, Levy and colleagues observed a group of 100 individuals 61 and older3. They found that brains could be trained to be positive and “that strengthened positive self-perceptions of aging … improved physical function.”
The way we talk to ourselves is important. Keep your negative self-talk in check. And never say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else.
If your thoughts on aging are negative, maybe there’s a way to put a positive spin on them; that’s where humor can be your savior! Allow yourself to smile or laugh about things that concern you or you can’t change. Personally, I couldn’t get through a day without seeing the humor in things. It’s a crazy world and, as the expression goes, you have to laugh.
Our physical habits also have a huge effect on our mental state. Follow a healthy lifestyle with daily exercise, good sleep and healthy food. Exercise is one of the most potent medicines for depression.
And finally, limit your time with negative folks, and instead surround yourself with positive, supportive people. Eeyore is cute in a book, but not as a constant companion in real life.
All of this is not meant to say that people with clinical depression should just buck up and get over it. If your negative outlook is so deep you can’t shake it with the simple hacks I’ve suggested, don’t hesitate to get professional help.
- Psychol Sci. 2014 Dec; 25(12): 2127–2135.