Doctor's orders: Don't worry, be happy.
Keeping a positive attitude about aging can extend life by seven and half years, which is longer than gains made by not smoking and exercising regularly, a study finds.
''People's perception of aging predicted the length of their survival,'' said Dr. Suzanne Kunkel, director of the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University and co-author of the study.
''It illustrates the mind-body connection. Even if we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we define it.''
The findings about attitude and survival rates were made by analyzing and matching data collected since 1975 about 660 people age 50 or older in Oxford, Ohio, with data from the National Death Index.
Kunkel began the research in the small southwestern Ohio town as a graduate student and has helped maintain the database for more than two decades.
Researchers at Miami and Yale universities looked at how the 338 men and 322 women responded to several questions about aging in 1975, and then examined how their responses predicted their survival up to 23 years later.
The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was funded by the National Institute on Aging.
Researchers found respondents with more positive views on aging live longer, even after taking into account factors such as age, gender, socio-economic status, functional health, self-reported health and loneliness.
''The median survival of those in the more positive self perceptions of aging group was seven and a half years longer than those in the more negative perceptions,'' Kunkel said.
The attitudes on aging had a greater impact on life span than lower body mass index, not smoking and regular exercise -- each of which extends life by one to three years.
''Our study carries two messages,'' said Dr. Becca Levy, a researcher at Yale University and the study's lead author. ''The discouraging one is that negative self perceptions can diminish life expectancy; the encouraging one is that positive self-perceptions can prolong life expectancy.''
But Richard Suzman, associate director for behavioral and social research for the National Institute on Aging, said while a positive self perception helps, it should not replace proper health care.
''Any notion that positive thinking is more powerful than not smoking ... there just isn't evidence of that,'' he said. ''There is enormous clinical evidence to show the value of not smoking and exercising.''
The researchers found that the will to live partially accounts for the relationship between positive self perceptions of aging and survival, but does not completely account for difference in longevity.
Levy's earlier research at Yale's Department of Epidemiology and Public Health has shown cardiovascular response to stress can be adversely affected when elderly persons are exposed to negative stereotypes of aging.
The new study said stereotypes about aging are acquired decades before the person becomes old and are therefore rarely questioned.
''Once individuals become older, they may lack the defenses of other groups to ward off the impact of negative stereotypes on self perceptions,'' the report said.
Kunkel said the study offers a strong message about life.
''There is nothing we can do about aging,'' she said. ''It's like sitting in traffic when you're late. The natural response is to get very stressed about the situation. The other choice is to not get upset and think about how to deal with the consequences of being late.''
The key is learning how to see a situation for what it is, she said, and to give it no more power than it needs to have.
''We enter later adulthood with our habitual ways of dealing with stress,'' she added. ''People need to learn new strategies to deal with it.''
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