As Old as You Feel: Attitudes About Aging Affect the Health of Older Adults

agingA new study suggests that people who hold positive attitudes about aging are 44% more likely to recover from a serious disability than those who view aging in a more negative way. The study, led by Becca R. Levy, PhD, director of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Division at the Yale School of Public Health, is described in a research letter in the November 21 Journal of the American Medical Association.

Over a 10-year period, Levy and her colleagues studied a group of 598 individuals who participated in a health plan in greater New Haven, Connecticut. All participants were at least 70 years old and free of disability at the start of the study, and all experienced at least one month of disability from active daily life during the follow-up period.

To measure the participants’ attitudes about aging, researchers interviewed them monthly and asked them to complete written assessments every 18 months during the course of the study. In these assessments, participants were asked for five terms or phrases they associated with older people. Their words were rated on a 5-point scale, with 1 being most negative (e.g., decrepit) and 5 being most positive (e.g., spry).

Although the disabilities experienced by the participants varied, the study defined recovery based on the ability to perform four activities of daily living: bathing, dressing, moving from a chair, and walking. These abilities are associated with longer life expectancy and less frequent use of health care facilities.

“This result suggests that how the old view their aging process could have an effect on how they experience it,” said Levy in a November 26 news story on the Yale School of Public Health Web site. “In previous studies, we have found that older individuals with positive age stereotypes tend to show lower cardiovascular response to stress and they tend to engage in healthier activities, which may help to explain our current findings.”

This research suggests that the next step may be interventions that encourage older people to think about aging in a more positive light. According to the authors, “Further research is needed to determine whether interventions to promote positive age stereotypes could extend independent living in later life.”

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