According to studies, optimism about ageing might be as helpful to your health as exercise and a healthy diet.

My mother joined a community facility with a pool and began swimming several times each week after my father’s passing. Dorothy was about eighty years old. She met individuals, learnt about local programmes and services for the elderly, and discovered a senior centre, which she continues to frequent 18 years later. It offers a hot meal for $1. She dances when a deejay enters the room She has made pals, including a group of ladies who gather every Saturday for lunch at a restaurant with free coffee refills and enormous quantities. I frequently joke that she has a more active social life than I do.

Experts have long recognised that those with strong relationships to family and friends tend to live longer. A team from Brigham Young University analysed the findings of 148 research dating back to 1900 to see if stable ties are lifesaving. In all, 308,849 people participated in the research, which followed them for an average of 7.5 years. Those with strong social ties were 50% more likely to be alive at the end of that period than those who were isolated and lonely.

According to the data, a fulfilling social life is as important for long-term survival as quitting smoking (which my mother accomplished after a four-decade habit) and may be even more important than exercise and combating obesity.

The term “stress buffering” is used by researchers to describe how social relationships may affect health. Assistance from others enables us to emotionally adjust to illness, the loss of a loved one, and other obstacles that frequently arise as we age. In turn, improved coping reduces the release of stress-induced chemicals that suppress the immune system and increase vulnerability to fatal infections, heart disease, and stroke. Good connections also motivate us to take better care of ourselves and can create a feeling of purpose, which is another element connected with a longer life span.

With this type of research, it is difficult to determine cause and effect. Does social interaction maintain the health of older adults, or does strong health motivate them to spend time with friends? In any case, a comment from the editors accompanying the Brigham Young study stated that doctors and other health professionals “should consider social ties as seriously as other mortality risk factors.”

The influence of beliefs

Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University, identifies a further factor that affects healthy longevity: our perceptions of ageing. She has published several research suggesting that whether we view old age as something to look forward to or something to fear has a significant impact on how well or poorly we perform as we approach that stage.

As a PhD student visiting Japan, Levy got fascinated by the health impacts of ageing beliefs and how cultural preconceptions and ideas regarding the old affect our personal perspectives. This country has one of the greatest life expectancies in the world. Long ago, experts attributed it to heredity and food, but Levy wondered if a less evident factor was at play.

The September national holiday Keiro No Hi, which translates to Respect for the Elderly Day, solidified her opinions towards ageing. Elderly jammed parks and dined for free at eateries. Students brought food to the homebound. She saw that older people commanded awe and respect in Japan. They were not ignored or mocked for being “geezers” or “over the hill.”

Levy recalls observing how the Japanese culture appeared to treat the elderly differently than the ageism he was accustomed to witnessing in the United States.

Levy discovered that persons in their 30s and 40s who saw old age positively, equating it with wisdom rather than decrepitude, were more likely to be in excellent health decades later. In a separate research, she demonstrated that over the following 18 years, those aged 50 and older who had a positive outlook on ageing were far more able to undertake common chores, such as shovelling snow and walking a half-mile, than their friends who viewed old age negatively. Those who held favourable age views at the beginning of one of Levy’s trials were also significantly more likely to restore full function following a fresh debilitating accident.

Even in genetically sensitive persons, Levy’s research indicates that rosy attitudes of ageing provide protection from cognitive deterioration. Levy and her colleagues investigated individuals who possessed the Alzheimer’s risk-increasing APOE 4 gene. At the beginning of the experiment, none of her subjects had dementia. Individuals with optimistic views on ageing were 47 percent less likely to acquire dementia than those who carried the APOE 4 gene.

Levy observed in a separate study that very young, healthy, cognitively sound individuals who had a pessimistic outlook on ageing were much more likely to acquire Alzheimer’s plaques and tangles in the brain. Their hippocampi, which are crucial for memory, shrunk three times as quickly.

Levy observed that those with a positive outlook on ageing lived an average of seven and a half years longer than those with a negative outlook.

Good attitudes strengthen bodies

How do beliefs wield such influence? First, according to Levy, persons with a positive attitude towards ageing tend to have greater self-efficacy and self-mastery, or the capacity to take charge of their life and manage their desires. In addition, they eat healthily, exercise regularly, and take prescribed medications. In addition, they have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and other stress indicators.

“The significance of age beliefs is that they are flexible,” she explains.

Writing is one technique to alter our perceptions of ageing. In research, Levy asked adult participants to visualise a day in the life of a hypothetical elderly person who is physically and mentally healthy and to write quickly about it once each week. After only four weeks, unfavourable feelings of ageing have dramatically diminished.

She has also had research subjects keep a record of television depictions of the elderly. It exposed people’s minds to the arrogant and unattractive preconceptions that bombard us and distort our thoughts and presumptions about ageing. “The goal is to increase people’s awareness of both their personal age beliefs and the age-belief messages they see daily,” adds Levy.

I asked Levy whether our communal perception of ageing has improved as the elderly population has grown and more of us have reached or surpassed 65. She told me that ageism had really become worse.

She and her colleagues created a computerised linguistic programme and evaluated a database of more than 400 million words from 200-year-old novels, newspapers, periodicals, and scholarly journals. The team analysed the adjectives most commonly associated with “elderly” and related terms, as well as synonyms for “old folks.” Before the late 1800s, when the Caucasian life expectancy in the United States was 41 years, the rhetoric was typically favourable. (At the time, researchers did not monitor life expectancy for other populations.) Since then, language pertaining to ageing has gotten gradually more cruel and contemptuous. For instance, the usage of the word geezer, which first emerged in 1900, increased elevenfold over the 20th century.

Levy suggests that the elderly may be the final group that society feels free to insult. She cites news articles about harsh jokes made during the early stages of the COVID epidemic, when individuals over the age of 65 were dying at unusually high rates and the phrase “boomer remover” became a popular Twitter meme.

Reading the studies of scientists attempting to solve the secrets of ageing might make it difficult to embrace age. The concept of “curing” ageing portrays it as a disease. Published research consistently begins with unpleasant news. A typical paper begins, “Aging is a degenerative process that leads to tissue malfunction and mortality.”

Levy believes that defining ageing as an illness disregards the many positive aspects of ageing and the numerous opportunities for progress in later life.

The future of healthcare

The more I studied about the science of longevity, the more optimistic I became about the likelihood of discoveries that will benefit all of us as we age. When I reached 68 years of age, though, I could not shake pictures of the tissue malfunction and cell death occurring within me.

Steve Horvath, the creator of epigenetic clocks that quantify biological age, offered to administer a test with the unsettling moniker GrimAge on me. I provided him with two little vials of my blood. A few months later, I was informed that my biological age was 3,3 years younger than my chronological age.

The report congratulated the recipient and stated, “You are already ahead of schedule!” Nonetheless, I felt let down. I was not in league with the longevity scientists I met, such as David Sinclair, who exercise constantly, fast, take supplements or off-label medications, and appear to defy time.

Then I considered my mother, who was still enjoying life in her late nineties. The research of Becca Levy persuaded me that my mother’s attitude somewhat explains her vitality. I’ve never heard her moan about her birthday or claim she’s too old to do anything, a criticism I’m beginning to hear from people my age.

“No,” she replies when I make this observation. “I am not overly elderly. I may complete it more slowly and with less effort. Yet, I am not too old to dance, stroll, or do anything else I enjoy.”

She pauses for effect. “Oh, I wouldn’t swim anymore.”

“Because it’s been a while since you’ve done it?”

“Because I dislike my appearance in a swimsuit.

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