The old saw that you’re only as old as you feel is getting a lot of scientific backup these days.
Even the views that younger people hold about aging can affect how they age, according to some intriguing research from Yale University and the National Institute on Aging.
In one recent study, social psychologist Becca R. Levy and colleagues looked at surveys taken by 386 men and women in 1968, when they were under age 50, and then studied their subsequent health records. Nearly four decades later, the subjects who had held the most negative stereotypes about older people (answering “true” to statements such as “older people are…feeble…helpless…absent-minded…make too many mistakes”) were significantly more likely to have had heart attacks or strokes than those who held more positive views. In the negative group, 25% had cardiovascular events, versus 13% of the positive group.
The findings, published in the journal Psychological Science in March, held even after accounting for other factors that can influence cardiovascular health, including high blood pressure, smoking, depression and high cholesterol. In an earlier study of Dr. Levy’s, of 660 people over age 50 in Ohio, those who in 1975 viewed aging as a positive experience lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those with more negative views.
How can expectations affect health so strongly?
One possibility is that they are self-fulfilling prophecies. People who believe that older people remain active, vital and healthy members of society may take better care of themselves, continuing good eating and exercise patterns. They can see a point in giving up smoking or beginning an exercise plan even in their 60s and 70s. Conversely, people who think that aging inevitably brings infirmity and illness may consciously or unconsciously let that happen.
Indeed, using data from the Ohio study, Dr. Levy and colleagues found that the people who had more positive perceptions of aging in 1975 were significantly likely to practice better health behaviors during the next 20 years—including visiting the doctor more regularly, eating a balanced diet, maintaining a desired weight, using a seatbelt and avoiding tobacco.
Genetics could be involved, as well. People whose attitudes toward aging were shaped by watching robust parents stay vital and active in old age may have inherited those genes, as well as the attitudes and habits that go along with them.
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