You probably know that exercise and diet are important when it comes to aging well. But there is something else you control that can help you along: a positive attitude.
Research shows more and more that your approach to life may be just as important in making your “golden years” your best years.
Aging: It’s in Your Mind
Growing older brings with it some natural changes (think those creaky knees). But folks who see good years ahead and who don’t accept stereotypes about aging — such as you’re less useful — may actually live longer.
And there’s science to back that up.
One study found that thinking positively about getting older can extend lifespan by 7.5 years. And that’s after accounting for things such as gender, wealth, and overall health. Some 660 women and men in Ohio joined this study, and they were monitored for more than 20 years.
If you see the glass half full, it could play an even bigger role in living better and longer than things such as low blood pressure and cholesterol, which have each been shown to increase life span by about 4 years.
A good attitude also seems to have a greater effect on living longer than not smoking, low cholesterol, or a healthy weight, a Yale study found.
The researchers’ earlier work showed the power of positive thinking when older people were asked whether they see themselves as “wise” or “senile.” People who thought themselves smart did better with memory, stress, and even with math.
The Power of Optimism
It’s difficult to know what comes first — the good health or the positive attitude.
One possible answer is they build on each other: A rosy outlook may help you exercise more and eat better. And that in turn helps you stay hopeful and happy because you feel better. You may hear that called a “virtuous circle.”
Optimism has been linked to living longer.
The Mayo Clinic found this out in a study they conducted over decades. They gave more than 800 people a test to figure out whether they were optimists, pessimists, or something in between.
Thirty years later, they checked to see just how long these people lived. The optimists did better; the pessimists had a 19% greater chance of dying in any given year.
Less Chance of Getting Sick
Part of the power of optimism is that it may actually lower the chance of getting sick. For instance, it may play a role in keeping your heart working at its best.
Optimism can be good for your blood pressure, one of the most important factors in heart health.
One study of more than 2,500 men and women who were 65 and older used a scale to measure just how positive or negative the people were. They took into account whether they smoked, drank alcohol, and what medications they were on.
What they found: People who were positive had lower blood pressure than those who were gloomy.
Being optimistic may help you with thinking and remembering.
People who are hopeful about their futures are less likely to be forgetful, a recent study out of Europe found. More than 4,500 adults age 65 and older were in it. The optimists were also better at problem solving and making sound decisions.
Learning to Be Happy
What if you feel like you’re a natural-born pessimist? All is not lost. Optimism can be learned; it takes practice like anything else.
Things you can do include:
- Check yourself. If you’re having negative thoughts, pause and see whether there’s a better way to look at what’s bothering you.
- Seek out humor and laughter
- Make time for things that give you joy
- Find positive people and hang out with them
Levy, B.R. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, August 2002.
Press Release, Yale University.
Maruta, T. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, March 2000.
Ostir, Glenn V. Psychosomatic Medicine, August 2006.
Gawronski, K.A. Psychosomatic Medicine, June 2016.
News Release, University of Michigan.
Mayo Clinic, “Stress Management (Focus on Positive Thinking).”