Good Attitude’s Effect on Aging
This is an absolute favorite topic.
It hands over the least tangible, least “scientific” of all health practices to a skeptical scientific community—and turns them into believers.
I’m talking about attitude. About how you think. Your world view. Your self-view. The power of the words you use to explain the events in your life—and your role in making them happen—or not.
That includes your role in creating your own health—especially as you age.
Science measures the invisible
I understand why the mainstream once scoffed at the idea of “positive thinking.”
You can’t see it, touch it, or measure it.
But a host of respected, science-based practitioners now embrace what WebMD, for example, calls “The Power of Positive Talking.” So you can bet there’s hard evidence to back them up.
Stanford University researchers titled their paper “Thinking Makes it So: A Social Cognitive Neuroscience Approach to Emotion Regulation.”
The science is all there. The MRI’s that measure activity in specific parts of the brain, the follow-up studies documenting better health and longer life, the stories people tell of creating a new life.
A better life, free of charge
Let me put this in perspective.
Of all the health-influencing practices, behaviors, and interventions, this one could be The Most Important.
Not diet, not medication, not genes, not exercise, not your past, not therapies A through Z.
All have their roles to play, and you can further empower them all with your attitude.
You can follow the Mediterranean diet, for example, until you speak Italian—and still think your way into illness with unchecked stress and anxiety.
Of course, there are limits. Thinking positively won’t reverse the effects of a sedentary, socially isolated lifetime of take-out burritos.
OK, Dr Connealy, convince me
Becca Levy is a professor of epidemiology and psychology at the Yale School of Public Health. Her study began with a question posed to middle-aged people: “Do you see older people as weak and dependent…or experienced and wise?”
What did she discover after following her subjects for years?
The people with a positive view of aging lived about 7 ½ years longer than the people with a negative view.
Another study followed middle-aged people with no cognitive impairment, but with negative views of aging over time. They were more likely to develop Alzheimer’s-related brain changes than those with positive views. And the more negative their views, the worse those brain changes were.
Finally, another study found that people with positive views of older adults were much more likely to recover from major health setbacks.
Works for me. You can make it work for you.
How to think and talk yourself healthy
More than anything else, you need a belief system that’s built on an unshakeable “attitude of gratitude.”
Should be easy, because it’s based on a non-arguable fact—that your body is a glorious, extraordinary gift that always has your best interests in mind, and the best practices to realize them.
Your body lets you move, run, hug loved ones, dance, sleep, dream, taste and digest wonderful foods, see all the world’s beauty, laugh, cry…live.
The poet Walt Whitman nailed it in his “Song of Myself.”
I celebrate myself, and sing myself…
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
But even when your glorious body lets you age or fall ill, you can choose to see that as a failure—your body let you down. Or you can choose the far healthier, and objectively more accurate, belief—that if you fall ill, your body is doing its job, thanks to your incredible immune system. It’s protecting you, warning you that something must change.
And if you pay attention to its message, and make the changes it signals, your thoughts and your immune system can help you heal.
If that doesn’t call for an attitude of gratitude, I don’t know what does.
Celebrate yourself. Always.
Affirmations: the self-help-self-health toolkit
It’s as simple as saying “My miraculous immune system is working 24 x 7 to keep me healthy.”
The great thing about this “affirmation” is that it’s true. No matter how sick, how symptom-smothered you are…your body never gives up trying to keep you healthy.
This and other affirmations can improve your health. I’ve seen it in my patients.
It won’t happen overnight. But if you say and believe the verifiable truth of it, “I’m getting better every day,” five times per day for a month, you will see and feel a difference.
You are the greatest
There are hundreds of other affirmations online, including guided video affirmations. And there are life coaches and therapists who can help you make them.
Doctor’s orders: check it out and do it.
Take a hint from the late, great, Mohammed Ali. He said, “I am the greatest” even before he proved it.
How about “I’m getting older…and getting better?”
- Jaffe, I. “Could Thinking Positively About Aging Be The Secret Of Health?“
- Ochsner, KN. “Thinking makes it so: A social cognitive neuroscience approach to emotion regulation.”
- Barker J. “The Power of Positive Talking.“
- Levy B, Langer E. “Aging free from negative stereotypes: successful memory in China and among the American Deaf.”J Pers Soc Psychol. 1994;66(6):989–997. [PubMed]
- Levy BR, Hausdorff JM, Hencke R, Wei JY. “Reducing cardiovascular stress with positive self-stereotypes of aging.”J Gerontol B Psychol Sci Soc Sci. 2000;55(4):205–213.
- Levy B et al. “Association Between Positive Age Stereotypes and Recovery From Disability in Older Persons.” 2012 Nov 21; 308(19): 1972–1973. doi: 10.1001/jama.2012.14541. PMCID: PMC3614078 NIHMSID: NIHMS426034
Last Updated: August 16, 2018
Originally Published: July 11, 2016