By Dr. Mercola
Age is largely a state of mind, and you’re really only as old or as young as you feel. While your doctor may fill you in on all of the health changes associated with “old age,” these are only approximations.
Many of you likely know someone firsthand who has seemingly defied the hands of time, looking, thinking and acting the age of someone decades younger. Your lifestyle — healthy diet, exercise, avoidance of pollutants, etc. — certainly plays a role in how well you fare as you get older, but so too does your attitude.
The research is quite clear, and intriguing, that a positive attitude about your age can help you to stay happy and healthy well into your golden years.
Your Thoughts About Aging May Become a ‘Self-Fulfilling Prophecy’
The way you view old age may have a very real effect on your physical health. In a study by researchers from the University of Exeter, 29 people between the ages of 66 and 98 were asked about their experience of aging and frailty, as well as their beliefs about attitude’s importance in health.1
While most of the people believed they were in good physical shape (even those who weren’t), two people identified themselves as old and frail. The negative outlook led to a “cycle of decline,” including stopping participation in social activities and exercise.
The researchers described the negative state of mind as a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” in which a person’s beliefs lead them to live a reduced quality of life. On the flipside, believing you’re strong and healthy increases the changes that you’ll act that way.
Positive Self-Perception of Aging Increases Longevity
Your mindset as you age can actually help you to live longer, provided it’s a positive one. Older individuals who reported positive self-perceptions of aging during middle age lived 7.5 years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions of aging.
The researchers noted that the effect was “partially mediated by will to live.”2 Research has also linked a person’s views on aging with the development of chronic disease and other health problems.
For instance, people with more negative age stereotypes earlier in life were more likely to develop brain changes linked to Alzheimer’s disease.3
Meanwhile, another study found that older people with positive stereotypes about aging were 44 percent more likely to fully recover from severe disability than those with negative age stereotypes.4 Positive attitude may promote recovery from disability via several pathways, according to the study:
- Limiting cardiovascular response to stress
- Improving physical balance
- Enhancing self-efficacy
- Increasing healthy behaviors
The mind-body connection is also highlighted in research showing the importance of maintaining a sense of purpose in your life as you age.
Feeling and believing that your life has meaning and a sense of direction is linked to a lower risk of multiple health problems, including certain types of stroke,5 cognitive decline, dementia including Alzheimer’s disease, disability and premature death.6
Neurasthenia: Age-Old Example of Mindset Influencing Physical Health
In the 1800s, a health condition known as neurasthenia was at its peak. Said to be the result of depleting the body’s “nervous energy,” neurasthenia was considered to be the result of living too fast, a manifestation of living in the increasingly modern, urbanized world.
Neurasthenia’s symptoms were numerous (headaches, weight loss, anxiety, irritability, depression, insomnia, lethargy, muscle pain and more), and its treatments ranged from the “rest cure” (used mostly for women and involved staying in bed for weeks) to the “West cure” (in which men would head westward to restore their nervous energy).
Many concoctions were also bottled and sold as neurasthenia cures. Not only did different cures seem to work for different people, but the disease affected men and women of the time differently.
Men, it was believed, would develop it if they spent too much time indoors while women were at risk if they spent too much time socializing outside of the house.
Is Stress the Modern-Day Neurasthenia?
Tom Lutz, Ph.D., the author of “American Nervousness: 1903,” and a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside, even told The Atlantic that neurasthenia was considered to be a disease of the privileged and it was thought:7
“ … [I]f you were lower class, and you weren't educated and you weren’t Anglo-Saxon, you wouldn’t get neurasthenic because you just didn't have what it took to be damaged by modernity.”
That aside, many of the underpinnings of neurasthenia could be said about stress today, or a myriad of other conditions that may be caused or worsened by overwork, mental or otherwise. The Atlantic continued:8
“Neurasthenia shaped so many things [including the development of national parks and recess], but its true legacy is in how people talk about health and happiness and lifestyles.
… [It] echoes in all the self-help books that promise to tell you how to be happy, in the Westernized yoga classes offering inner peace, in everyone fretting over whether the Internet is alienating or if babies should look at screens or if Americans are working too much and burning out.
People haven’t stopped worrying about what the trappings of modern life are doing to us.”
Uplifting Your Views About Aging Can Improve Your Health
Your lifestyle is a profound influence on your health at any age, and this includes not only healthy eating and effective exercise but also tending to your emotional needs by deciding to be happy, thinking positively, socializing, seeking out new and exciting experiences, and associating aging with positive stereotypes instead of negative ones.
Unfortunately, many societies condition people to view old age as a time of weakness, frailty and loneliness instead of what it can be instead — a time of wisdom, reverence, indulgence (in yourself and your own desires), and yes, even a time of physical strength and mental clarity.
If you currently have a negative outlook about aging, you have much to gain by changing that. For instance, one study investigated ways to uplift people’s views on aging and then looked at how this new mindset affected their physical strength.
When positive age stereotypes were strengthened, it led to improvements in physical function that rivaled those achieved by six months of exercise!9 And it's simply no coincidence that many centenarians mention positive thought and emotional wellness in their advice on how to stay healthy.
As centenarian Walter Breuning said before his death, "Tell yourself that every day is a good day, and make it that way."
The Power of Positive Thought Is Real
A positive outlook can influence your health for the better regardless of your age. It may even negate, or at least lessen, a genetic predisposition toward a certain health condition.
For instance, in a study of nearly 1,500 people with an increased risk of early-onset coronary artery disease, those who reported being cheerful, relaxed, satisfied with life and full of energy had a one-third reduction in coronary events like heart attack.10
Those with the highest risk of coronary events enjoyed an even greater risk reduction of nearly 50 percent. This was true even when other heart disease risk factors, such as smoking, age and diabetes, were taken into account. The study’s lead author noted:11
"If you are by nature a cheerful person and look on the bright side of things, you are more likely to be protected from cardiac events. A happier temperament has an actual effect on disease and you may be healthier as a result."
This is but one study to find a strong connection between positive psychological well-being and cardiovascular (and overall) health. Separate research has similarly found:
- Positive psychological well-being is associated with a consistent reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD)12
- Emotional vitality may protect against risk of CHD in men and women13
- Cheerful heart disease patients live longer than pessimistic heart patients14
- Very optimistic people have lower risks of dying from any cause, as well as lower risks of dying from heart disease, compared to highly pessimistic people15
Choose to Be Happy and Don’t Act Your Age
If you want to feel young and enjoy your life well into old age, adopt the mantra to not act your age. As soon as you start to tell yourself you’re “too old” to do this or that, your mind and body may follow suit. Believing that age is just a number, and that you can be fit, healthy and strong at any age, can actually help you to live longer and maintain a higher quality of life. Even subtle changes can make a difference.
For instance, when older adults were exposed to negative words about aging, such as cranky, senile or feeble, they scored poorly on memory tests. The same adults did significantly better (and even as well as people in their 20s) when they were shown positive words, such as accomplished, active and knowledgeable, instead.16,17
Even if you have a health condition, staying positive can help you to live longer.18 And while you’ll want to avoid “living too fast” and succumbing to the ills of chronic stress and burnout, you’ll want to be sure to keep living. That is, no matter what your age, continue to look forward to the future, develop goals and live with purpose.
In one study, people who reported a higher sense of purpose had a lower risk of heart disease and a 20 percent lower risk of death during the study period.19 Simply feeling “useful” to others can result in life purpose and, in turn, increase your body’s resilience to stress while encouraging you to lead a healthier lifestyle.