Healthy aging depends on many different factors, from your genetic makeup to lifestyle choices, such as exercise, weight, and stress management, and health problems and illnesses you develop over your lifetime. There is, however, another factor that researchers have found may have a significant impact on your health and how long you live—your attitude about aging.
Over the years, researchers have conducted a number of studies about people’s attitudes about aging to see if there was a link between that perception and the study participants’ health as they got older. One of these studies found that people who had positive perceptions about aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those who had negative perceptions about getting older. Another found an association between a positive outlook on aging and the ability to recover from a severe disability or illness. In that study, older people who had a positive view of aging were 44% more likely to fully recover than those in the study who had a negative view. Another study found that people who felt their lives had purpose–doing things that were goal-oriented and gave them a sense of accomplishment–had a lower risk of stroke.
Attitudes towards aging can even affect the health of your brain as you age. One recent study found links between negative views of aging and the development of changes in the brain that are connected to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. In this study, researchers examined healthy people with no signs of dementia who were taking part in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging.
Using MRI, they found that people who had negative views of aging had more decline in the volume of their hippocampus, part of the brain that’s essential for memory. This decline is an indicator of Alzheimer’s. Brain autopsies were performed on study participants who died and these studies found that those with more negative attitudes about aging had more amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, two other indicators of Alzheimer’s disease.
What can you do to be healthier as you age?
Although the researchers did not pinpoint exactly how negative views of aging affect health, they suspect that stress plays a significant role. Some animal studies have found that chronic stress produces brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s and a range of other studies have found that stress increases the risk and severity of cardiovascular problems, back pain, diabetes, depression, and other serious health problems.
To help you stay healthier as you get older, follow these recommendations:
- Stay connected and engaged. Take part in family and community activities and continue to learn new skills. Sharing your talents and experiences and making connections with others can help you have a more positive outlook and the sense of purpose that can help you stay healthier. Learning a new skill like painting, a foreign language, or playing an instrument can help slow the cognitive decline that can come with age.
- Manage stress. Try coping tools like meditation or exercise to lower your stress levels. It’s also important to get an adequate amount of sleep. Lack of sleep can not only impact your overall well-being, it can also amplify the effects of stress.
- Keep moving. Exercise has a positive impact on the health of your heart, brain, joints, bones, and mood. Walking and swimming are good low impact aerobic exercises. Ask your doctor what type of exercise is most appropriate for you.
- Eat a Mediterranean diet. This approach to eating has been linked to heart and brain health, so it’s a good approach for healthier aging.