Whoever said that growing old isn’t for sissies had a point. Every day, I see patients struggling with aches, pains, limited mobility, and far worse. When our health declines, we tend to blame aging. But I’ve come to the conclusion that growing older isn’t the villain. It’s our “everything is downhill now” response to aging that’s the problem. Because the truth is, growing older is certainly better than the alternative. And now scientists are discovering that simply changing your attitude about aging can truly be a game changer.
A few years ago, researchers made a startling discovery. In examining women with stressful lives — mostly caregivers with disabled children — the scientists found that those who saw life as something they could cope with had fewer markers of aging. Meanwhile, those who believed they were trapped in a hopeless situation over which they had no control were old beyond their years at the cellular level. In fact, on average they showed signs of aging that normally occurs in someone at least ten years older. Clearly, the stress of feeling that you’re stuck or overwhelmed or that life is hopeless has a very real impact on your health, something my longtime patient Ralph learned about the hard way.
The aging markers the study focused on are known as telomeres, microscopic caps that shield the ends of our chromosomes. These little collections of DNA (the material containing each cell’s genetic instructions) are involved in the process of cell division, a vitally important process that helps to keep our bodies functioning properly. Each time a cell divides, the telomere attached to it contributes a portion of itself to the process and therefore becomes smaller.
At some point, the telomere is too small to continue providing this service, so cell division stops. The cell remains alive, but it can’t renew itself, and its ability to function slows or ends completely. You can see the effects of shortened telomeres in sagging, wrinkled skin and in diseases normally associated with aging, such as heart disease and a weakened immune system.
What does stress have to do with this process? During stressful events, the adrenal glands produce hormones that damage — and sometimes kill — immune system cells. To replace them, other cells in the immune system take on the job of replicating, which causes their telomeres to become shorter. So more stress means shorter telomeres, which eventually translates into less-effective cells throughout the body. In other words, cells may become old before their time as a result of repeated bouts of unmanaged stress and shortened telomeres.
Several studies confirm that individuals with shorter telomeres are more vulnerable to a variety of ailments. Since that initial study, we’ve learned more about optimism, telomeres, and healthy aging. For example:
- Optimistic individuals have lower levels of inflammation and blood vessel dysfunction that lead to heart disease.
- A healthy lifestyle is associated with longer telomeres as shown in a study of nearly 6,000 nurses. These five measures define a healthy lifestyle:
– Not smoking
– Maintaining a healthy body weight
– Engaging regularly in moderate or vigorous activities
– Drinking no more than moderate amounts of alcohol (less than 2 drinks daily)
– Eating a healthy diet
- Researchers studying individuals who have reached 100 years of age noted that they share common traits, such as being optimistic, easygoing, and open to laughter as well as conscientious and comfortable expressing emotions. All are typical of those who live to see the century mark.
The Importance of Attitude
As you can see, vitamin O (or optimism) plays an important role in aging. For some people, optimism seems to come naturally. These are the individuals who always see the glass as half full. At the other end of the spectrum, we have people who can find fault with just about anything. The optimist looks outside and sees a beautiful day, while the pessimist complains that the sunshine is too bright or the birds are chirping too loudly.
Not surprisingly, optimists and pessimists react very differently to health issues. Optimists tend to follow doctors’ orders. They believe they can get better, and they are proactive in fixing things.
Pessimists, on the other hand, are more likely to give up. They feel doomed, so what’s the point of taking medicine or doing what the doctor recommended? Pessimists tend to dwell on their failures and blame themselves when things go wrong, even if the situation was out of their hands.
Another major difference between optimists and pessimists: Optimists generally enjoy life. Even on bad days, they can focus on reasons to be happy or pleased. Pessimists, on the other hand, find it difficult to enjoy anything. They’re usually more concerned about what could go wrong or are busy finding fault with something. Even when there’s an opportunity to improve a situation and eliminate the problem, they seldom act on it, preferring to hang on to the source of their misery.
Fortunately, even pessimists can change their thinking and learn to be optimists. It’s really not that difficult. In fact, all it requires are a few simple tools and a willingness to stick with it. Here are my three steps to healthy attitude adjustment.
3 Steps to an Optimistic Outlook
Remember the classic Johnny Mercer song “Accentuate the Positive”? I’ve found that two of the song’s phrases apply to turning pessimism around. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Eliminate the Negative
If you live long enough with a pessimistic attitude, negative responses can become automatic. When that happens, pessimists resist or find fault with most everything, including things they’ve enjoyed in the past. That’s when the nitpicking begins, and you’ll hear things like “Sure, Oktoberfest is fun, but the traffic is terrible, there’s nowhere to park and, with my luck, it’ll rain.”
But how do you change the automatic negative responses to something more positive? I suggest my patients use a trick from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of treatment that involves understanding how thoughts and feelings affect behavior. Simply put a rubber band on your wrist. Every time you start down the path to a pessimistic response, snap the rubber band. You don’t have to hurt yourself; a small snap will do, just enough to remind you that there’s a better way to frame your response. Example: “I love Oktoberfest! If we go early, there’ll be less traffic, more parking places; and I’ll take an umbrella, in case the weatherperson is right for a change.”
On the other hand, if you really don’t want to go, skip the complaints and just say you’d rather not. Carping and whining lead to the release of unhealthy chemicals in your body, something we want to avoid whenever possible.
Step 2: Accentuate the Positive
When we dwell on what we don’t like, we’re not leaving much room for the good things. That’s why I like to remind patients of the importance of encouraging positive emotions — happiness, joy, love, affection, and pleasure.
Next time you’re having a bad day, try this trick. Let’s say you bought something that you want to return. You try to take it back, but you don’t have the receipt, and the store manager refuses to accept it. For many people, this type of event colors their entire day, sometimes even the whole week. They feel insulted, angry, and foolish, swearing they’ll never buy anything at that store again. All those negative emotions accomplish nothing, but they do affect your health — big time!
Your response, however, doesn’t have to involve fretting and stewing over a situation that’s beyond your control. Why not shrug it off? Maybe the item in question would be a good gift for a friend. Or you may be able to donate it to a charity or a fund-raiser and possibly even take a tax deduction. Be creative when looking for ways to turn negatives into positives, and you’ll see that it’s not as difficult as it may appear.
Here’s another little trick to turn a frown upside down. Next time someone disappoints or angers you, spend a few minutes relaxing quietly and remembering a time when you were happy. Close your eyes. Recall as many details as possible — what the weather was like that day, where you were, and what you were feeling. Think about the sights, sounds, and even the smells you experienced. As you become more involved in remembering the event, let the positive emotions it generates replace the negatives. Positive emotions create beneficial, health-enhancing chemicals in the body.
No time to sit back and visualize a happy time? Smile! Researchers at the University of Kansas found that physical and emotional health were boosted when participants smiled during stressful events.
Step 3: Get Support from Supplements
Remember those telomeres I mentioned earlier? They’re the end caps on chromosomes that we must protect from stress. Here’s a simple way to achieve that — take omega-3 fatty acid supplements. A new study found that individuals who took omega-3 supplements had longer telomeres than those who did not. I recommend 1,000 to 2,000 mg daily of Calamarine, a stable, purified source of omega-3s.
St. John’s wort, SAMe (short for S-adenosyl-L-methionine), and vitamin D3 are other supplements I suggest looking into, especially if you are mildly depressed. Hundreds of studies have tested herbal and nutrient-based remedies for emotional issues. These three supplements are among the most consistently effective treatments:
- St. John’s wort alleviates both depression and anxiety with few side effects, especially compared with prescription medications. I recommend a daily dose of 600 to 1,200 mg. Look for a standardized product containing 0.3% hypericin, the active ingredient.
- SAMe (pronounced “Sammy”) is an amino acid that occurs naturally in the human body. Research shows that SAMe eases depression symptoms by raising levels of dopamine and serotonin, the brain’s “feel good” chemicals. Try a daily dose of 1,600 mg.
- Vitamin D3 is an important nutrient linked to everything from flu protection to strong bones and emotional health. I’ve found that many of my older patients are deficient in vitamin D3. The reason is that our ability to produce this nutrient with exposure to sunlight diminishes as we grow older. That’s why I recommend 1,000 IU (International Units) supplements for most middle-aged and older individuals. Or you can have your blood levels tested by your health-care provider, and adjust the dosage according to the results.
If you’re taking other medications, discuss St. John’s wort, SAMe, and vitamin D with your health-care provider because these supplements may interact with certain drugs. Just remember, it can take four to six weeks for nutritional supplements to reach therapeutic levels in the body, so please be patient.
For many people, the so-called golden years are tarnished by unnecessary worries or fears about things that may or may not be realistic. That’s why I strongly encourage my patients to focus on the positives, small as they may be, and avoid negatives whenever possible. Remember, aging is a natural part of the life cycle, and it can be just as enjoyable a time as any other if you know how to approach it.