Aging research: positive attitude to aging keeps healthy

Aging research : Think yourself young, think yourself healthy!

You are, they say, only as old as you feel. Is there any truth in the folk wisdom? Does our physical and mental condition not depend at all primarily on the years of life, but on how we assess ourselves? There is growing evidence that subjective age influences how quickly a person ages biologically. And so it makes a difference whether there are good sides to aging or whether aging is frightening.

The personal attitude of a person to aging is difficult to measure. Clearly, one can simply query whether someone thinks rather positively or negatively about it. More valuable, however, are more differentiated analyses; after all, aging is hardly exclusively good or bad for anyone. Respondents can report losses for themselves on the physical level, for example, but gains on the cognitive level: for example, if they themselves believe they can always develop further.

This article is included in Spectrum Health, What makes blood so special

"For health and longevity, both feeling younger and having a generally positive attitude toward aging are good," says developmental psychologist and aging researcher Susanne Wurm of Greifswald University Medical Center. Scientists led by Yale University psychologist Becca Levy provided figures for this effect back in 2002: To their surprise, people with a more positive view of aging lived an average of seven and a half years longer than those with a more negative one.

Looking positively into the future is beneficial to health

The attitude toward old age manifests itself differently in the body. Heart disease, for example, is less common in people with a positive attitude. The fact that aging is a matter of the head is also reflected in the brain. In general, the volume of gray matter in the brain, which consists mainly of nerve cell bodies, decreases with increasing age. In older people who consider themselves younger, this process seems to be slowed down: they have a biologically younger brain, and the volume of gray matter in certain brain regions has not shrunk as much as would be expected. In those who are subjectively young at heart, mental abilities such as memory also decline less with age.

In cells, the length of telomeres is an important indicator of biological age. Telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes, become shorter with each cell division, until at some point the cells can no longer divide and become senescent. Levy’s team tested telomere length as an age marker in a study of more than 300 older adults. In doing so, it examined participants’ attitudes toward aging, as well as the length of their telomeres four years after being interviewed. As it turned out, telomeres actually shortened more significantly in subjects with a negative attitude compared with the others.

The connection seems clear – but the famous question of cause and effect arises. Do attitudes toward aging and subjective age really affect health and longevity? Or is it just the other way around?? One could well perceive poor physical health or a decline in mental performance in oneself and attribute these losses to aging. As a result, people struggle with aging and feel older.

Cause and effect can be distinguished, says Susanne Wurm, because the relevant studies are often longitudinal studies. In this case, groups of people are observed over a longer period of time, and it is known whether someone initially had an unconcerned view of the future and then the joy turned into concern. In fact, both feeling younger and having a positive attitude toward aging had an effect, Wurm says. Both contribute to "people getting sick less over time, having better mobility, falling less often and getting dementia less often". This is true even when other possible influencing factors are factored out, such as more or less healthy behavior or psychological factors, such as greater optimism.

The studies also showed "how the attitude toward aging at a certain point in time affects health years later," explains Wurm. The reverse also works, there are effects in both directions. "In doing so, we see that attitudes toward aging are more predictive of health than, conversely, health is predictive of later attitudes."

This is confirmed by psychologist and aging researcher Hans-Werner Wahl from the University of Heidelberg. "The effect seems to be clearly in one direction – unfavorable subjective aging contributes to health risks"; conversely, the effect seems much weaker. So the psyche influences longevity – albeit sometimes only slightly. However, "subjective age and attitudes toward aging have a greater effect on longevity than smoking, for example," Wahl makes clear. From his point of view, subjective age is much more decisive than objective age, or to put it bluntly: "Aging takes place primarily in the mind."

Important for aging well: stress management

People who feel younger than they are or have a more positive view of aging are often more physically active than others. They eat healthier and go for preventive medical checkups more often. "There are downward spirals and upward spirals in this," says aging researcher Wurm. "Those who take a more negative view of aging, for example, engage in less physical activity, which causes them to physically break down faster, leading to an even more negative view of aging."

Stress is also an important factor. Being under constant pressure is one of the greatest risks for the psyche and body. In a study by Becca Levy, levels of the stress hormone cortisol increased over 30 years in older subjects with negative attitudes toward aging – an increase not seen in more positive subjects.

A younger subjective age apparently acts as a kind of stress buffer, as a recent long-term study by Markus Wettstein of the German Center for Gerontology in Berlin suggests: A survey after three years found that greater stress had less of an adverse effect on subjects’ health if they felt subjectively younger than they objectively were by years of life.

The psyche works in other ways. Hans-Werner Wahl illustrates this with an example. If you say, "Ms. Schmidt, it’s great that you, an elderly lady, made it here and are taking part in a cognitive test," the subject will do worse than if you don’t emphasize her age. "It has a lot to do with motivation," says Wahl. "When you feel younger, you believe you can achieve more." People who feel young, in addition to having a stronger will to live, are more likely to feel they can make things happen and overcome problems.

Aging has an image problem

What follows from all this? Because it is also clear that the positive attitude is not always at its best. In Western culture, aging has a real image problem. It is associated with physical infirmity, mental deterioration, and languishing in nursing homes. After all, that could be changed. You could motivate people to think about what is also beautiful about growing older, says developmental psychologist Susanne Wurm, instead of not opposing deficit-oriented thinking. It would also be possible to provide support through new technical aids; older people could learn how to use certain apps, realizing what they can still achieve in old age and gaining a more positive view of aging. "In addition, we need much more differentiated images of old age in the media, in politics and in the world of work," says Wurm.

The need for this was made clear in the Corona crisis: elders, for example, have been portrayed quite one-sidedly as needing protection. "At the same time, older people are not a homogeneous group," says Wurm. So it’s time for new images of aging. And what could be more tempting as an incentive than to live healthier and longer?.

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