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The Power of Positive Aging

Feel good about growing older?

If you do, you may very well live longer than those who dread old age. This good news (or bad news, depending on how you feel about aging) emerged from a study done by psychologist Becca R. Levy, PhD, of the Yale School of Public Health. She and her colleagues found that people’s attitudes to aging can affect not only how well they function but also how long they live.

Levy’s research followed up on a study done in 1975, when 660 residents of the small town of Oxford, OH—all of them 50 or older—answered questions regarding how they felt about their own aging.

They were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statements:

• Things keep getting worse as I get older.

• I have as much pep as I did last year.

• As you get older, you get less useful.

• I am as happy now as I was when I was younger.

• As I get older, things are (better, worse or the same) as I thought they would be.

Twenty-three years later, Levy’s team checked to see which participants had died and when. They found that those who had responded to the original survey with a positive attitude lived about seven and a half years longer than those with a more negative outlook.

In fact, people’s attitudes toward aging had a greater influence on how long they lived than their health at the time, their gender, their financial resources or any other factor the researchers examined. Those who felt positive about growing older also functioned better over the years—they could walk and climb stairs more easily, for example. Levy and her colleagues noted that if pessimism about aging were a virus that cut life expectancy by more than seven years, scientists would be hot on the trail of a cure.

One obvious explanation for Levy’s results is that people who look forward to their later years are apt to take better care of their health, and in other studies she and her colleagues did find that was true. She speculated that people who expect the worst of old age might feel it’s futile to make the effort to stay well.

But her studies demonstrate there’s more to it than that. Ageism drives the results.

Older people who were primed with positive words walked faster afterward—speeding up as much as if they’d spent weeks doing vigorous exercises.

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About the Author Flora Davis Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.

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