Science says those who age positively have longer lives. And those extra golden years then benefit from a life of healthful habits.
Grow old along with me – the best is yet to be.— Robert Browning, 1864
Growing old with a positive outlook has incredible advantages. Scientific research has shown a positive self-perception can help a 50-year-old live up to 7.5 years longer.
Positive Aging or Healthy Aging
Here is what is positive or healthy aging:
Positive aging is nurturing a positive mindset and an optimistic attitude, trying one’s best to stay healthy and happy, and engaging with life and society as fully as one’s age allows. Growing old with grace is about making the golden years of life healthy and fruitful, engaging and meaningful.
In short, positive aging is growing old healthfully and gracefully.
The idea behind positive aging is that people can be happier and healthier in their senior years if they were to follow certain interventions from the positive psychology. In other words, positive aging is not about how well one is able to avoid the pitfalls of aging, but more about the how well they are able to focus on what makes life worthwhile in the later years in spite of the physical, social and mental challenges.
Does Earth Have More Seniors Now?
The human race is getting older.
More and more people are living into late old age than ever before. Nonagenarians and centenarians are quite commonplace today.
Because life expectancy and human longevity has increased incredibly in the last few decades, more people are living longer today.
According to National Institute of Aging, in 2010, about 524 million people were 65 years or older—8% of the world’s population. By 2050, this is expected to nearly triple to about 1.5 billion, that is, 16% of the world’s population.
Closer home, India’s older population of 60 million in 2010 is projected to exceed 227 million by 2050, an increase of nearly 280%.
The Biggest Myths of Aging
Two of the strongest myths people link with ageing are:
- Our brains shrink and die a little each minute
- Our mental abilities fail and vanish every day
However, these are just myths. Both are wrong, as modern brain science has discovered. The last decade has shown us our brains are not permanently hard-wired with fixed circuits.
Rather, our brains are plastic — they can remodel and rewire themselves in response to injury, training and life events. This marvelous feature of continuous adaptability of our brains is called neuroplasticity.
Using neuroplasticity, by changing our lifestyles, we can delay the loss of our mental (cognitive) abilities.
The Biggest Challenges of Aging
This longer span of life has brought in fresh challenges: How does one live into their golden years healthfully and gracefully?
The first problem of ageing is there is both physical as well as mental loss of power and speed. However, with a little practice, the older adults can perform just fine.
When you grow old, everyday becomes a challenge. From getting out of your bed in the morning to the time you go to sleep, and even sleep itself, each step is a troubling challenge.
Of the many fights you get to fight during the day, the worst is the one of discrimination. Every person you meet seems to be telling you that you’re old — and therefore as good as a furniture.
Can you make them see you as something more than a bag of old flesh and bones?
Can you be productive around your house and your society in the best capacity for your age?
You can, sure. But it depends on one thing above all: your health.
How much can you, as an ‘oldie,’ contribute positively to your family and society depends most on that one thing — your health. Being in good health is the greatest task of old age.
But old age brings other challenges too — as
- loneliness, and
A survey conducted by the Australian Psychological Society (APS) found these common challenges experienced by older people:
- Maintaining health and fitness
- Maintaining social networks and activities
- Feelings of sadness and loss
- Ensuring financial security
- Decreases in mobility
- Increased reliance on others
A study on 83,000 people of all ages in 57 countries found 60 per cent of them felt the older people are not respected.
A 2002 study by Levy at Yale on 660 people aged 50+ years found those who held more positive views about the aging process lived around 7.5 years longer than those who perceived aging a negative process.
This effect was found to so strong that it did not matter if it were a male or a female, came from a higher or a lower social and economic class, and lived alone or not.
The Yale study also found older people who think they are a burden to others dial up their risk for depression and social isolation, both of which can shorten their lives.
Factors That Control Aging
Drawing from three separate longevity studies that tracked the lives of 824 people, mostly male Harvard graduates, for more than 50 years, beginning in their teens, George Vaillant counts the factors that ‘do’ affect healthy ageing:
- Smoking: Quitting smoking by 45 or “not being a heavy smoker before age 50” the single most important predictive factor that influenced healthy ageing.
- Mature abilities to adapt to situations: Vaillant called these “mature defenses,” and found them to be the second most powerful predictor of healthy aging.
- No alcohol abuse: This was found to be a factor that influenced both physical as well as psychological health.
- Healthy body weight: Obesity was found to be related to bad physical health, but had no effect on psychological health.
- Stable marriage: A stable marriage influenced both physical and psychological health.
- Regular exercise: Physical exercise was linked to both physical and psychological health.
- Better and higher education: According to Vaillant, education facilitates physical and psychological health by fostering an “appreciation of the causal connections between personal behaviors and their consequences.”
Factors That Don’t Control Aging
Vaillant also found there were some factors that do ‘not’ influence our healthy ageing:
- Parents’ and grandparents’ age: Vaillant found that by age 70 to 75, there was no difference in ancestral longevity between those who were happy-well and those who were sad-sick.
- Warm childhood environment: The studies did not find any correlation between the psychological adjustment in young adulthood and healthy aging.
- Stable childhood temperament: “After age 70 childhood temperament did not distinguish the happy-well from the sad-sick.”
- Social class of parents: The social class of the parents and childhood family do not hold any sway among the older adults.
- Cholesterol levels at 50: Vaillant found that cholesterol levels “at age 50 did not distinguish the happy-well from the sad-sick or even from the prematurely dead.”
- Stress: The study found that the physical and psychosomatic symptoms related to stress before 50 did not correlate with physical health at 75.
Here’s an excellent paper on healthy ageing by Ann Bowling and Paul Dieppe: What is successful ageing and who should define it?
Positive Sides of Healthful Aging
Ageing can have many rewards. Indeed, ageing does come with many advantages and incentives.
A longer life brings with it new opportunities to serve others, not only for their families, but also for their communities and societies.
Also, as research suggests, older adults who are happy and relatively healthy can become assets to their communities rather than burdens (Allen, 2008).
Brain Functions And Aging
In some ways, memory actually gets better with age. The capacity to recognize patterns and regularities, and to predict accurately, improves over time. The whole process slows down, but the final results are better with ageing.
Think of this as a computer disk with tens of thousands of pictures. Imagine each picture as an experience. Now, since there are so many experiences to sort from, the processing time gets longer. But, for the same reason, there are much fewer mistakes to make.
Several studies have found we can push back the decline of our cognitive abilities by 5 to 10 years by increasing our:
- social connections,
- physical exercise, and
- mental jogging.
Emotions, Relationships And Aging
The older people tend to experience more positive emotions, relatively fewer negative ones.
Another upside of ageing is the emotional range of older persons is more stable. They are less sensitive to the daily ups and downs happening around them, and negativity and stress affect them less.
The older people try harder, and invest more time and effort to better their surviving relationships, as they have a sense of limited time left. With age, the present meaningful relationships assume higher priority than trying to meet new people or make new friends.
As we age, we also tend to let go those of those people who do not make us feel secure or supported. In a sense, we become emotionally wiser as we age.
7 More Advantages of Growing Old
- Anxiety attacks and depressive episodes happen less frequently. Older people feel fewer negative (as well as positive) emotions.
- With age, we also get more optimistic. With age, you also feel more contented with your life and better connected with others. Your bonds with people become deeper and more satisfying.
- Age comes with valuing time more.
- Older people choose more meaningful relationships. They are less impulsive in creating new contacts.
- They can see interpersonal problems from many points of view.
- They also become better advisers, honed by temperance and experience.
- People who are hundred years or older believe that negative feelings are better linked to more health and physical activity. This can be explained. They are more concerned with what negative effects will later arrive with any excess in the present. For example, they avoid too much of food, fun, activity, and even sad events, to jeopardize their health.
Positive Aging: How To Age Healthfully & Gracefully
What does positive ageing mean? In essence, the delaying or managing in a healthy way the undesirable effects of ageing is positive ageing. It’s about maintaining both a good physical and mental health into late years.
Positive ageing is making the sunset years of one’s life healthy, fruitful, and meaningful. Positive ageing is more about quality than quantity.
Positive ageing is a term used to describe the process of maintaining a positive attitude, feeling good about yourself, keeping fit and healthy, and engaging fully in life as you age. — Australian Psychological Society
7 Principles of Healthy & Positive Aging:
Here are 7 ways to help one age positively and healthfully:
- Keep A Positive Attitude
- Lower Your Stress Levels
- Maintain Social Connections
- Involve Yourself In Brain Activities
- Do Regular Exercise
- Eat Healthy Food
- Keep A Medical Diary
1. Keep A Positive Attitude
Keeping a positive and optimistic outlook towards events and people around you, and feeling positive about life itself, can help you get more out of your years. Positive attitude increases longevity. You can age positively by keeping a positive attitude.
Engage with life and maintain activities that are more meaningful to you. Discover the meaning of your life if you haven’t already. This also helps to have a far more enjoyable quality of life.
•» Stay focused on the positives of life.
2. Lower Your Stress Levels
High levels of stress can cause damage to your psychological and physical self. Stress also pulls down your immunity, and makes you more prone to illnesses.
Create environments where you can feel safe, stay in control, and make choices. Take care of your money and finances — as the lack of it can be a toxic source of stress.
Accept your boundaries; do not take up any bit more than you can handle. And don’t worry your head off — let life happen.
•» Keep yourself as much free from stress as possible. Practice mindfulness.
3. Maintain Social Connections
Maintain your contacts with others by joining clubs or going to places where those of your age gather, as parks for morning or evening walks.
Keep in touch with your family and people who care about you.
Build meaningful relationships that nurture you. Also, remember to respect others’ choices and do not step on their toes.
•» Don’t let go of your social connections. Do not isolate yourself.
4. Involve Yourself In Brain Activities
Carrying out tasks that give your brain a workout are important to keep your thinking sharp. It can as simple as reading books or listening to audiobooks, solving a crossword or sudoku, learning new skills as origami or playing chess.
Always believe and practice you can keep learning and remembering, whatever your age. Our brains are able to reshape according to demands on it — this is called neuroplasticity.
•» Keep your brain alert, active, and flexible.
5. Do Regular Exercise
Physical exercise is a proven way to increase your productivity and health in your golden years.
Exercise keeps your mind active and fresh, increases your mobility and balance, brings a more optimistic outlook towards life, and, of course, reduces the risks of several illnesses.
Strength training can help maintain muscle mass, which can then delay care dependency and reverse frailty.
•» Stay active. Take up 30 min of moderate exercise every day.
6. Eat Healthy Food
Old age is a prime time to value the importance of healthy and nutritious food.
Eat less amounts. Include fresh foods in your diet. Ask your doctor or nutritionist for advice on what foods you can have and what to avoid.
As scientists have found, the brain foods — seafood, beans, nuts, and greens — can help keep your mental sharpness intact to a great extent.
•» Eat for health and energy rather than taste and pleasure.
7. Keep A Medical Diary
Keep a diary of your medical checkups and doctor appointments. Set up reminders so as not to miss them.
Stop any unhealthy habits or addictions you might have, as smoking or drinking.
Ask for psychological help whenever you feel you’re unable to cope with a situation with peace of mind. Never miss your medical checkups and doctor visits.
•» Seek regular help of your doctor and other health professionals.
The human race is getting older.
But we believe there is no typical age of an old person. All that reference to 65 years and more to mean old age is just a current notion, and it’s a stigmatized one.
In future, when they are more, we feel they should use their sheer numbers to find a more inspiring term to call themselves.
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Author Bio: Sandip Roy is psychology writer, happiness researcher, and medical doctor. Founder of Happiness India Project, and chief editor of its blog. He writes popular-science articles on positive psychology and related topics.
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