When I teach psychology classes and ask students how many of them want to live to be 100 years old, very few raise their hands. When I ask them why, they respond mostly with stereotypical images of the elderly: alzheimer's disease, bodily dysfunctions [organs not operating properly, for example], other loved ones dying [being alone], nursing homes, and similar thoughts. On rare occasions, a student will respond that she or he would want to live longer if they were of sound body and mind. The young have a persistent image or stereotype about aging, which I can relate to because I had the same images. And, my experience working in a nursing home didn't do anything to dispel those images. However, I have since learned that more people live fairly well in their later years; it is a smaller population that experiences such unhealthy conditions that they can no longer live alone. And, of course, more people are becoming aware and taking action to live healthier longer.
How much does mindset have to do with living longer? There are mixed research results on this topic, but I wanted to share the results of one study that should be thought-provoking.
In 1975, researchers Becca Levy and colleagues asked more than 650 people positive and negative statements about aging, such as "Things keep getting worse as I get older" and "I am as happy now as I was when I was younger." Their results were scored and categorized as holding either a positive or negative view of aging.
Then, 20 years later, Levy and colleagues found that those who viewed aging more positively lived, on average, seven and a half years longer than those who were negative on aging. Another study done in the 1990s by Heiner Maier and Jacqui Smith als found that dissatisfaction with aging was one of the principle factors in how long people live.
The results also showed that holding a positive outlook on aging made far more difference than any physical indicators, such as cholesterol levels, exercising, body weight, etc.
Thus, says psychologist Ellen Langer, we must be mindful of our beliefs and make a decision to change them. "We must choose to believe that we have control over our health" (Langer p. 24), even if we are sometimes wrong. There is the more likely result of lost rewards by choosing not to believe we have control, and more likely some positive rewards by "exercising meaningful control over our health" (Langer p. 24).
Allan, for example, says things like "Getting older is great!" or "I have so much more knowledge and experience as an older person!" In our "Immorality Cult" gatherings, we have talked about our beliefs about aging and health and what we might want to do about them.
What do you think about mindset, positive aging beliefs, and getting older? Are you focused on changing the stereotypical beliefs about aging? How might a person go about changing their negative beliefs about aging?
Langer, Ellen 2009. Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. Ballantine Books