Thinking Positively About Aging Extends Life More than Exercise and Not Smoking

Thinking positively about getting older extends one's life by seven-and-one half years, which is more than the longevity gained from low blood pressure or low cholesterol or by maintaining a healthy weight, abstaining from smoking and exercising regularly, a study by a Yale researcher has found.

"We found that those individuals who reported more positive self perceptions of aging demonstrated significantly longer survival than those who reported more negative self perceptions of aging," said Becca Levy, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health and lead author of the study published in the August issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Unlike members of minority groups, who have been targeted from childhood, stereotypes about aging are acquired decades before the person becomes old and are therefore rarely questioned, the researchers said.

"Once individuals become older, they may lack the defenses of other groups to ward off the impact of negative stereotypes on self perceptions," the authors said. For example, Levy has found in her previous research that depending on whether elderly persons are prompted to see themselves as "wise" or "senile," they will experience enhanced or compromised memory performance, will to live, cardiovascular response to stress, mathematical performance and views of other older people.

The findings about attitude and survival rates were made by analyzing and matching data collected in a small town in Ohio with data from the National Death Index. Researchers looked at how 338 men and 322 women 50 years old and older responded to several statements about aging in 1975, and then examined how their responses predicted their survival up to 23 years later. An example of one of the self perception of aging statements was: "As you get older, you are less useful."

What the researchers found is that those respondents with more positive views on aging live longer, even after taking into account factors such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, functional health, self-reported health and loneliness.

"We found that the median survival of those in the more positive self perceptions of aging group was 7.6 years longer than those in the more negative aging self stereotype group," the authors said.

The effects of attitudes about aging had a greater impact on survival than low blood pressure and cholesterol, each of which is associated with a longer life span of about four years. The attitudes about aging also had a greater impact on longevity 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," the authors said. "The discouraging one is that negative self perceptions can diminish life expectancy; the encouraging one is that positive self-perceptions can prolong life expectancy."

The researchers said the negative self perceptions of aging reported in this study may reflect a "societally sanctioned denigration of the aged," and said that ideally an effort will be made to counter these views and actions directed at the elderly.

Co-authors included Stanislav Kasl, professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, and Martin Slade, both of Yale, and Suzanne Kunkel of Miami University.

The study was funded by the National Institute on Aging.