Positive thinking may not be a cure-all, or even a cure-anything, but when it comes to the health effects of aging, it has its pluses.
That’s the upshot of two new studies in the August 2017 issue of The Gerontologist, published by the Gerontological Society of America.
In one, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Michigan looked at how married couples, age 51 and up, perceived the aging process, for better or for worse.
Using survey data on 1,231 couples collected in 2008, the researchers first assessed how positively or negatively the couples saw aging — based on how much they agreed or disagreed with positive statements like “I have as much pep as I did last year” and negative ones like “Things keep getting worse as I get older.”
They then looked at survey data on those couples from 2014, asking about their “functional limitations” — basically the ability to perform physical tasks such as walking several blocks, getting up from a chair, climbing stairs, and picking up a dime.
Even after adjusting for numerous other factors, such as race, education, and wealth, the researchers found that couples who shared a bleak view of aging were consistently more likely to suffer from functional limitations six years later than their more positive peers.
The power of not-so-positive thinking
In the second study, researchers explored one reason that people with a bleak view of aging might, unfortunately, prove themselves right.
That study, by two University of Michigan researchers, drew on surveys from 2010 and 2011 that measured how positively or negatively respondents saw their own aging process, using statements similar to the two examples above. In all, a total of 5,340 men and women, ages 51 and over, took part.
A year after each survey, respondents were asked whether they had delayed getting medical care during the previous 12 months. As it turns out, people with a negative view of aging were significantly more likely to have put it off.
What kinds of medical care were involved? Researchers had that data only for the 2011 set of subjects, but the results were revealing: 52 percent had put off seeing a doctor because of a symptom or problem, 29 percent put off a check-up, and 22 percent had skipped a routine screening.
As the authors of the first study note, “Aging is inescapable, but beliefs about aging are malleable, can remain positive until the end of life, and are predictive of future health, well-being, and longevity.” How we experience it may be at least partially up to us.
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Greg Daugherty is an award-winning writer and editor specializing in retirement topics. He has served as editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest New Choices retirement magazine, executive editor of Consumer Reports, where he wrote a popular column about preparing for retirement, and senior editor at Money. His work has appeared in Money, Smithsonian, Parade, The New York Times, and NextAve.org, among others.