No fear in the face of aging extends life expectancy
The age you are likely to reach doesn’t just depend on your genes and your lifestyle. How you feel about aging is also a determining factor in the age you are likely to reach, according to an article by epidemiologists over ten years ago in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. If you approach your golden years calmly you’ll live seven years longer than if you dread impending old age.
According to the not entirely uncontroversial positive psychology, it’s a known fact that a positive attitude can extend your lifespan. But at the turn of the 21st century, Becca Levy and Martin Slade could only find one study on the relationship between lifespan and how you regard your impending old age.
The study was done in Germany in 1999. [J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 1999 Jan; 54(1): P44-54.]
In that study the researchers followed 516 people aged between 70 and 103 for a number of years. They discovered that psychological factors did play a role in determining the age the participants reached. An unexpectedly strong factor was how discontent the participants were about the effects of aging: the less content they were, the earlier they died. The researchers maintained however that the dissatisfaction was a consequence of the aging process, not the cause.
The Americans on the other hand suspected that the perception of aging may well be a determining factor in lifespan, and decided to investigate this using data gathered in the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement study.
For this study in the mid-seventies, 660 over 50s were surveyed.
The participants were asked, among other things, to what extent they agreed with statements such as: “Things keep getting worse as I get older”, “I have as much pep as I did last year”, “As you get older, you are less useful”, “I am as happy now as I was when I was younger” and “As I get older, things are better as I thought they would be”.
On the basis of the answers the researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with strongly positive self-perception of aging [High PSPA] and one with less strongly positive self-perception of aging [Low PSPA].
The researchers followed the participants for 23 years and recorded when any died. The data they collected enabled them to produce the curves in the figure below. As you can see, a positive attitude towards your own aging can add more than seven years to your lifespan.
Click on it and a larger version will appear.
“If a previously unidentified virus was found to diminish life expectancy by over seven years, considerable effort would probably be devoted to identifying the cause and implementing a remedy”, the researchers write.
“In the present case, one of the likely causes is known: societally sanctioned denigration of the aged. A comprehensive remedy requires that the denigrating views and actions directed at elderly targets undergo delegitimization by the same society that has been generating them.”
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