By Dr. Mercola
No matter where you live or how old you are, you're probably interested in living longer. If you're reading this, chances are you're in an ever-increasing quest to live better, eat better and generally take better care of yourself. But how might someone's mental outlook influence their longevity? According to new research1 published in International Psychogeriatrics, living longer is not necessarily just a matter of chance. Approaching life with purpose and optimism has been shown to make a significant difference in a life well lived.
It takes intestinal fortitude to live in a world where it feels, in many respects, that to do what's best for you, you have to row against the tide. While many simply go with the flow, it takes courage and, yes, possibly a stubborn streak, to hold out for excellence and perseverance; to live life with purpose and not just what floats your boat at the moment.
Researchers from Sapienza University in Rome and the University of California San Diego collaborated to study people living in nine remote villages in Southern Italy who lived, in some cases, well past the age of 90 and even to 101.
Their health was compared with that of family members whose ages ranged from 51 to 75 years. One fascinating thing the scientists found was that, although some of the younger people may have been in better physical shape, the oldsters enjoyed better mental health. One may wonder how the researchers went about assessing the outcomes of the data they gathered. Newsweek noted:
"Data was gathered using both measurable assessments for mental and physical health, including factors like optimism and depression, in addition to interviews that gathered personal stories about traumatic life events and beliefs. The team also analyzed the younger participants on the same rating scales but also asked them to describe their older relatives' personalities."2
How Being Stubborn Can 'Ground' You
Characteristics like having a positive attitude contributed to a more upbeat mindset for the older people involved in the study, the assessments determined. Newsweek quoted study co-author Dilip Jeste, from the University of San Diego School of Medicine and director of its Center for Healthy Aging, who explained:
"The main themes that emerged from our study, and appear to be the unique features associated with better mental health of this rural population, were positivity, work ethic, stubbornness and a strong bond with family, religion and land."
The researchers believe the "Old World" mentality maintained by many of the older participants, evidenced by a tendency toward a domineering, stubborn, "in control" approach to life, helped those older individuals establish a grounded frame of mind; fear of judgment from others wasn't part of their mentality. Boxing legend Jake LaMotta, the "Raging Bull," who died on September 19, 2017, at the age of 95, had one such outlook on life.
His life was one of brawling and brutality, but against incredible odds he is remembered as one of the greatest middleweight boxers in history. As Today observed, the oldest people living tend to live their lives by controlling, to the greatest degree possible, their own lives and destinies. They have many things in common:
"The nonagenarians and centenarians were positive, optimistic and hopeful despite traumatic events in their lives, like the deaths of their spouses or children. They worked hard all their lives and were still active in their old age. They loved their families, but were 'controlling, domineering and stubborn,' wanting things to be done their way."3
Jeste called the nonagenarians' and centenarians' collective stick-to-itiveness "well-deserved stubbornness" and said reaching their advanced ages was a test of their sustainability as a sign that with age comes wisdom.
How Wisdom Comes With Age
From the point of view of older generations, their ability to have lived so long, and the success of the things they poured their lives into for 90-plus years, justified their complete lack of desire to conform to anyone else's needs or demands. Jeste noted:
"When you are young, there's a lot of peer pressure and you always feel that you're not doing as well as some other peer. When you are older … the expectation changes — expectations of other people and expectation of self. You accept yourself better."4
With age comes a sense of balance — an "all things considered" approach that views being agreeable as not a betrayal of one's personal code, but evidence of a greater understanding of what's at stake and what's truly important in life. Swarthmore College conducted a study in 20165 in which researchers concluded that life experience shouldn't be minimized as it sometimes is by the young. As Science Daily assessed, "With age comes wisdom, at least when it comes to knowing that things aren't always as they appear."6
The researchers found that older people tended to assess the correct slope of a hill better than young adults simply because the former group has a greater set of life experiences to draw from. More importantly, interpreting the slant of a slope may be a metaphor for all of life, the study authors conjectured:
"Whereas much research on aging emphasizes perceptual decline, when it comes to space perception for navigation, older adults do well. And they also seem to have acquired wisdom with their years about the difference between how things seem and how things are. This is a point well worth making."7
Perspective, Understanding and Giving Grace
In talking to younger relatives for their impressions of their elders' personalities, characteristics and qualities, it's telling that one younger relative in the study of Italian oldsters described her father as "a dictator."
We probably all know an elderly person who has not chosen to take the proverbial high road and instead chooses to look back on the landscapes of their lives with regrets of the past and anxiety for the future rather than focusing with gratitude and grace — both for themselves and for others — in the ever-present here and now.
That's undoubtedly why the researchers also encountered older people with a tendency to be domineering, inflexible and the ones in control. It's easy to see how people with such a bent would find it particularly hard to face the changes that come with age, with their circumstances often dictated by a decrease in financial or physical freedom. While some people might call that survival skill "stubbornness," someone else might call it "grit."
It might not be a refusal to budge for the sake of being a curmudgeon, a feeling they've earned the right or an urge to make up for times they might have felt slighted or taken advantage of. It might be self-preservation.
It's got to be tough to be deferential in the face of hard times, like the loss of loved ones, lost jobs, unmet expectations and consequences of things that might not have gone quite as one planned or hoped, especially as old age is taking its inevitable toll. As late actress Bette Davis once quipped, "Old age ain't no place for sissies."
'You're as Old as You Feel' Versus 'Mind Over Matter'
One of the most important things you can do in any situation is to look at the bright side, and that's probably more true with approaching old age as any other situation in life. It's one thing to notice older people who aren't handling it as well as we feel they could or should, but the bell tolls for us just as surely as it does for the archetypal "them." Time certainly does march on.
Like practicing a speech before you give it or planning a trip to an unknown city, imagining how it might go, planning for contingencies and determining how you'll react if something doesn't go as swimmingly as you hoped is a prudent course of action. It's true also as you begin looking at your twilight years.
But there's something that's both galvanizing and encouraging about viewing (and living) advanced age with an outlook that everything will be all right, no matter what happens. That's why a positive attitude may very well be worth its weight in gold.
In fact, studies suggest that how you approach the aging process can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you feel that because you have a certain number of candles on your birthday cake it means it's time to fade into insignificance and obscurity, you almost certainly will. On the other hand, if you adopt a can-do, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other approach to life with every new day, the odds are you'll live longer.
More importantly, you'll be happier and healthier as you do it. If you ever find yourself thinking "people my age should act or feel this way or that way," resist it. Instead of allowing words and phrases like "cognitive decline," "crotchety" or "feeble" to fill your thoughts of what "old age" looks like, focus on positive terms such as "knowledgeable," "experienced" and "wise" instead. It's much more than bamboozling yourself; write your own scenario and it may come true.
Going the 'Healthy Eating and Exercise' Route
If you know down deep that you don't have the most positive outlook on life but still want to live to be a ripe old age, you can learn strategies for becoming happier and more optimistic. That being said, eating right and keeping your body limber and your heart strong with regular daily movement and exercise is also important. In fact, one doctor advises that the best way to make up physically for a not-so-positive attitude would be to exercise. As behaviors go, it might be top priority to postpone an early death.
A recent study at the University of Kansas, however, found that people are generally eager to live into old age, but only if they're in good health.8 When 90 people from Germany, China and the U.S. were interviewed, study author David Ekerdt, Kansas University professor of sociology and gerontology, noted a certain reluctance on the part of the participants to specify how long they wanted to live, ostensibly because the "must be healthy" prerequisite was a caveat.
Ekerdt believed the reluctance stemmed from the way people in general feel about the aging process. Depending on cultural norms, ideas about life either flowing on in a smooth continuum or being sharply divided sequences of time seem to be placed in four stages of life, the third being the stage that might be referred to as retirement. The fourth stage was described by some participants in terms that included words like disability and decline.
A willingness to prolong life was dependent on being able to maintain their current state of health or what they might deem acceptable. According to Ekerdt, "Some felt their lives had already reached a stage of completion, and others as a form of fate acceptance."9 An upside was that the older individuals in the study claimed to resonate with mottos like "Add life to years, not just years to life." The best way to do it is by making lifestyle choices that will help increase your potential for a long, healthy life.
The Search for Significance
One thing the researchers in the featured study noticed right away in talking to the older people was that connection was of great significance, and recognizing their own significance was fundamental for emotional survival. A desire to be close to family and friends in the emotionally connected sense was one more thing the older people shared in common. Like the television show "Cheers," it's important to have connection — for there to be at least one place you can go "where everybody knows your name," Jeste says.10
Another study11 reported that people who had positive rather than negative ideas about what aging looked like lived an average of 7.5 years longer than their more negative counterparts. Variables like age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness and functional health notwithstanding, the will to live is powerfully suggestive, and more often than not, it's about the love of friends and family, The Sacramento Bee12 noted.
It's one of the most crucial aspects of being able to live happily, even if it's not forever after. No matter how old you are, people need to know they're wanted, to feel at home, to look forward to seeing familiar faces and knowing they can freely share both stresses and joys, but such freedom is missed most by the elderly when they no longer have it. Further, social support of that magnitude doesn't have to come from a hundred friends, but ideally it should be at least two good friends or relatives to fulfill that sense of belonging we all need.