One Way to Live Longer: Stop Worrying About Getting Old

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From The Wall Street Journal:

Want to live an extra seven years? Think nice things about old people.

A new book on the psychology of aging argues that positive beliefs about growing old can add an average seven-and-a-half years to a person’s lifespan. Such good thoughts give the mind greater power over longevity than steps like lowering blood pressure (which adds roughly four years, according to the book), cutting cholesterol (four years), quitting smoking (three years) or losing weight (one year).

Becca Levy’s “Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs About Aging Determine How Long & Well You Live,” uses scientific research to explore the impact of negative age beliefs on memory and hearing loss, cardiovascular issues and dementia.

What she found was a startlingly powerful mind-body connection, which is sometimes worsened by ageism and negative stereotypes about the elderly that can sabotage one’s future.  

“When it comes to how we age, society is often the cause,” she writes, “and biology the result.”

The book released last week offers hope for those who feel discouraged by the effects of aging, showing how people can improve their health by shifting their outlooks. It outlines what individuals and society can do to counter misconceptions about growing old. It examines cultures that revere the elderly, argues that genetics aren’t necessarily destiny and shows how physical accomplishments are possible even in old age. 

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How do negative thoughts affect health in older people?

People who take in more-positive age beliefs from their culture tend to eat healthier diets, exercise more, and they are more likely to take prescribed medications. When we strengthen positive age beliefs, people tend to have lower levels of different kinds of stress biomarkers—lower levels of cortisol over time, lower cardiovascular response to stress. And we have found evidence that they have higher levels of well-being and self-efficacy that can lead to beneficial health changes over time.

You challenge assumptions about old people and memory. Is the “senior moment” a myth?

The term is often used for labeling any kind of forgetfulness, which we know we can experience at any age. There are a lot of different reasons for it—somebody was distracted or stressed or angry—that can reduce our ability to encode information.

Some studies show that the ability to remember vocabulary and metacognition, or the ability to intentionally think about your own thought processes, can improve in later life. I talked with people for the book who showed some impressive examples of later-life cognitive mastery, like the 84-year-old actor who memorized the 60,000-word poem “Paradise Lost.” 

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal