The old saying “You’re only as old as you feel" has new life, backed up by a new study. Researchers found older people with positive views on aging were 44% more likely to recover fully after severe disability than those with negative views on aging. People with positive attitudes about aging also had a slower decline in their ability to do daily tasks such as dressing and bathing. “It may be something worth considering that might help people’s recovery," says researcher Becca Levy, PhD, associate professor at the Yale School of Public Health.
Upside to a Positive Attitude
Until now, experts say, most of the research on attitudes about aging and health has looked at the health risks and losses linked to a negative outlook. But this study suggests there may be tangible health benefits to having a more positive view about aging. “It’s not just about reducing the losses associated with aging, but also about making gains in one’s health or disability status and regaining what might have been lost,” says Tara L. Stewart, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Idaho State University. “These people with positive stereotypes about aging experienced health gains and better recovery, not just a reduction of health losses,” Stewart says.
Views on Aging Affect Recovery
In the study, researchers periodically surveyed 598 people aged 70 or older about their views on aging over a period of about 11 years. None were disabled when the study started, but later on, all of them had at least one month when they needed help with daily tasks such as bathing, dressing, or walking. In some cases, their disability was severe; other cases were mild.
They were asked for the first five words or phrases that come to mind when they think of old people. The researchers rated their responses on a five-point scale as most positive, like “spry,” or most negative, like “decrepit.” The results appear in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The findings were strongest for older people with the most severe types of disability. They were 44% more likely to fully recover from severe disability than those with negative age stereotypes. Also, older people with positive views on aging were more likely to progress from severe disability to mild disability or mild disability to no disability.
Older people with positive age stereotypes also had a slower rate of decline in their ability to perform daily activities as they got older. Of course, many factors affect whether or to what extent a person recovers from disability. This study does not prove that a positive attitude about aging made a difference. But it showed the strongest relationship between age stereotypes and recovery was among those people with positive age stereotypes and the most severe type of disability.
Positive views on aging may help people bounce back from disability and promote independent living in a variety of ways, the researchers say. One of the biggest ways may be psychological. Stewart says a person’s attitudes about aging say a lot about how much they believe their health is under their own control. For example, people who view seniors as spry rather than decrepit may be more likely to live a healthy lifestyle, keep up on their doctor appointments, and take their medicines as prescribed. “Holding a negative stereotype about aging, like believing illness is caused by aging, would cause them to feel less in control and responsible for their health and lead to different sorts of strategies,” Stewart says.
Levy also says there may be a physiological side to it. “People who have more positive age stereotypes tend to have the advantage in experiencing stress,"says Levy. “They tend to suffer from less cardiovascular stress.” Researchers say the next step is to look at how people can upgrade their attitudes about aging. “We need to emphasize some of the positive as we get older instead of focusing on the developmental losses that may happen with aging,” Stewart says.