Middle-aged and older adults who stay upbeat about aging may live years longer than those with a gloomier outlook, according to a study published in the August issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In fact, the research suggests, the link between attitude and survival is much stronger than many physiological influences on longevity, including blood pressure, cholesterol, and exercise.
Several recent studies have indicated that negative stereotypes about aging--pervasive in American culture--take a physical toll on older adults. In one set of experiments, Yale University social psychologist Becca Levy found that in older adults, subliminal stereotypes caused heightened cardiovascular activity in older adults, an indicator of stress. Those findings, combined with evidence that factors such as overall optimism or loneliness can affect health and survival, led Levy to speculate that years worth of stereotypes might shorten life-spans.
In the new study, she and colleagues at Yale and Miami University of Ohio drew on data from 660 men and women age 50 and older who had taken part in the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement since 1975. The researchers examined participants' responses to statements such as "As you get older, you are less useful" and "Things keep getting worse as I get older." Participants who felt better about aging lived an average of 7.6 years longer than those who were disheartened. The pattern wasn't affected by socioeconomic status, loneliness, or health. In comparison, Levy and her colleagues note, physiological factors such as low blood pressure and cholesterol are associated with a longer life-span of 4 years or less; having a lower body mass index, not smoking, and exercising boost longevity by 1 to 3 years.
The benefit of positive attitude is striking in its magnitude, says Christopher Peterson, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who researches optimism's effect on health. A possible explanation, he suggests, is that a brighter outlook leads to a healthier lifestyle. "What is it that these people are doing in their lives?" he wonders. "Are they saying 'no' to desserts? Are they more physically active?" Ultimately, Peterson thinks, more research will reveal a variety of biological and social influences.