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The Health Benefits of Optimism

Positive thinking in general and about your age as you get older can do more than win friends and keep you smiling. Being positive, including being positive about aging, is linked with a number of health benefits, such as the delay of mental decline. And if positivity doesn’t come naturally for you, you can learn to become better at it, experts say.

Positivity Research

  • Positive beliefs about aging can help older adults recover from mild cognitive impairment (having more memory and thinking problems than others your age) and do so sooner than their more negative counterparts do, according to a study that evaluated more than 1,700 men and women, average age 78. While it is widely assumed that those who get mild cognitive impairment will not recover, about half do regain normal thinking, according to researcher Becca Levy, PhD, professor of epidemiology at Yale University’s School of Public Health and professor of psychology at Yale University. In her study, she found that recovery was much more likely in those with positive age beliefs.

  • A positive outlook on life can also reduce the risk of a dementia diagnosis, other researchers found. They looked at results of several previous studies, with more than 44,000 people, a fraction of whom were diagnosed with dementia, finding those who were creative, agreeable and friendly were less likely to get a dementia diagnosis than those who were negative and often distressed.

  • Optimism and other facets of psychological wellbeing are linked with better heart health.

Positivity Benefits

“Positive age beliefs can act as a resource and an inspiration,” said Levy, who wrote Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live. Her extensive research suggests that many health issues commonly attributed to aging are actually influenced by our negative age beliefs. In her research, she says, “We have found that positive age beliefs may lead to better health outcomes through three pathways—psychological, behavioral and physiological. “For instance,” she adds, “those with more positive age beliefs tend to have a higher self-efficacy (such as believing in one’s skills and ability), engage in positive behavior such as physical activity and tend to have lower levels of stress biomarkers.”

Getting to Positive: How-Tos

People can learn to strengthen their positive beliefs about aging, and in the process, improve their physical functioning, Levy has shown in her research. But you don’t need to join her research studies to learn how to do that. Here are her tips:

Get Inspired!

“Develop a portfolio of diverse and positive older role models,” she says. One way: List four older people you admire—two from your own life and two from the world at large, such as from the arts or from history.

Pick Qualities to Emulate

“Next: “For each older role model, pick one or more qualities that you admire and would like to strengthen in yourself as you get older. Ideally, you will pick out different qualities for each person that you most admired. One person might have a particularly great sense of humor, whereas another may have a strong commitment to social justice.”

Recognize your Patterns

In her book, she has other exercises to boost positive age beliefs, such as recognizing that you have negative beliefs about aging. Jot down the first five words or phrases you think of when you think of an older person. Then, just notice:  How many are negative? How many are accurate? It may take time to turn around a negative outlook, but like physical exercise, a fifteen-minute mental exercise can pay off in improved mood, and much more. Try it and see!




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