Positive Thinking On Aging Helps Seniors Heal: Study

11/21/2012 12:00 pm ET

Does seeing the glass half full mean you will be healthier later in life? A growing body of evidence suggests that positive thinking does correlate with less illness and longer lives. And, if you're already older, having a positive outlook appears to be especially important.

A new study has found that older people who feel good about aging are more likely than those who hold negative stereotypes to recover after suffering from disability.

Researchers at the Yale School of Public Health showed that, of two groups with different views of aging, the people who felt good about older people were 44 percent more likely to recover from a severe disability than those with negative views.

Participants included 598 people who were at least 70 years old -- the average age was 79 -- and free of disability at the start of the study. The participants were interviewed monthly for up to 129 months and were told to complete home-based assessments every 18 months over 10 years.

Researchers established age stereotypes by asking participants for five terms or phrases they associated with older people and then graphing those descriptions on a five-point scale with 1 being most negative (such as decrepit) and 5 being most positive (spry).

The findings by lead researcher Becca R. Levy and her Yale colleagues suggest that initiatives to promote positive age stereotypes could allow people to live independently later in life.

"This result suggests that how the old view their aging process could have an effect on how they experience it," noted Levy, director of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Division at the School of Public Health, in a press release. "In previous studies, we have found that older individuals with positive age stereotypes tend to show lower cardiovascular response to stress and they tend to engage in healthier activities, which may help to explain our current findings."

Recovery from disability in the new study was equated with being able to perform four routine activities: bathing, dressing, moving from a chair and walking. Doing well in these things is associated with longer life expectancy and lower use of healthcare facilities.

In 2002, another study published by Levy showed that those with more positive views of their own aging lived, on average, 7.6 years longer than those with more negative views.

Levy's studies are two of several in recent years that have begun to establish a link between one's personality and attitude toward aging and a longer life. Personality and positive thinking also may play a role in one's vigor, both physically and mentally, as they grow older.

In general, studies show that people who maintain a positive attitude tend to make healthier lifestyle choices. According to a Mayo Clinic study, people with a positive attitude get more physical activity, follow a healthier diet and have lower rates of smoking and alcohol consumption.

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