​Can positive thinking prolong your life? Science says yes

​Studies show that staying optimistic about aging can be as beneficial to your health as exercising or eating well.

After my father died, my mother joined a community center with a pool and started swimming laps several times a week. Dorothy was nearly 80. She met people, learned about local programs and services for older folks, and discovered a senior center that remains her hangout 18 years later. It serves hot lunch for a dollar. A dee jay comes in and she dances. She has made friends, including a group of women who meet for lunch every Saturday in a restaurant that serves huge portions and free coffee refills. I often say, only half-jokingly, she has a better social life than I do.

Scientists have known for quite a while that people with strong ties to friends and family tend to live long. A team from Brigham Young University looked at results from 148 studies dating back to 1900 that investigated whether solid relationships are a lifesaver. All told, the studies included 308,849 participants and followed subjects for an average 7.5 years. At the end of that time, people with strong social connections were 50 percent more likely to be alive than those who were isolated and lonely.

According to the analysis, a satisfying social life was as beneficial for long-term survival as quitting smoking (something my mother did after a four-decade habit) and may be even more crucial than exercise and overcoming obesity.

Social connections may influence health through what the researchers call “stress buffering.” Support from others helps us adapt emotionally to illness, the death of a loved one, or other challenges that often pile up as we get older. Better coping, in turn, eases the flow of stress-induced hormones that weaken our immune system and increase susceptibility to deadly infections, heart disease, and stroke. Strong relationships also encourage us to take better care of ourselves, and can provide a sense of purpose—another factor associated with longer life.

In research like this, of course, it’s difficult to tease out cause and effect. Does social engagement keep older people healthy—or does robust health give them the zest and desire to spend time with friends? Either way, an editors’ note accompanying the Brigham Young analysis said doctors and other health professionals “should take social relationships as seriously as other risk factors that affect mortality.”

The power of beliefs

Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University, points to another influence on healthy longevity: our beliefs about aging. She has published scores of studies demonstrating that whether we think of old age as a time to enjoy or something to dread has a powerful influence on how well, or how badly, we do as we inch closer to that stage.

Levy became curious about the health effects of aging beliefs—and how cultural stereotypes and values about the elderly shape our personal attitudes—as a graduate student visiting Japan. That country has one of the world’s highest life expectancies. For a long time, scientists chalked it up to genes and diet, but Levy wondered if something less obvious was at play.

Her ideas about aging beliefs jelled when a national holiday, Keiro No Hi, which translates as Respect for the Aged Day, rolled around in September. Seniors packed parks and dined at restaurants for free. Schoolchildren delivered meals to shut-ins. In Japan, she observed, older people commanded respect, even reverence. They were not shunted aside or ridiculed as “geezers” or “over the hill.”

“What I actually noticed was how differently the culture seemed to treat the oldest members of the Japanese society, as opposed to some more of the ageism that I was used to seeing in the United States,” Levy recalls.

Levy has found that adults in their 30s and 40s who had positive notions about old age—they equated it with wisdom, for example, instead of decrepitude—were more likely to be in good health decades later. In another study, she showed that people 50 and older who had optimistic views of aging were much better able to perform everyday tasks over their next 18 years—activities like shoveling snow and walking a half-mile—than peers who regarded old age bleakly. Older people who had positive age beliefs at the start of one of Levy’s studies were also much more likely to fully regain function after a new disabling injury.

Levy’s research also suggests that rose-colored perceptions of aging offer protection against cognitive decline, even in adults who are genetically susceptible. Levy and her colleagues studied people who carried the APOE ε4 gene, which increases the risk of Alzheimer’s. At the start of the project, all her subjects were dementia-free. Those who had upbeat views of old age were 47 percent less likely to develop dementia than the APOE ε4 carriers who had grim notions of aging.

In another study, Levy found that relatively young, healthy, cognitively fit people who saw nothing promising about growing old were much more likely to eventually develop plaques and tangles in the brain, the pathological hallmarks of Alzheimer’s. And their hippocampi, the curved brain structures essential for memory, shrank three times as fast.

Perhaps most striking, Levy discovered that people with the brightest view of aging lived an average seven and a half years longer than those with the gloomiest.

Positive mindsets support bodies

How do beliefs exert such power? For one thing, Levy says, people with a positive mindset about aging tend to have better self-efficacy and self-mastery, the ability to take control of their lives and regulate their impulses. They also tend to eat well, exercise, and take prescribed medications. And they have lower levels of the hormone cortisol and other biomarkers of stress.

“What’s important about age beliefs is they’re malleable,” she says.

Writing is one way to shift how we think about aging. In a study, Levy asked groups of adults to imagine a day in the life of a hypothetical older person who is physically and mentally healthy, and briefly write about it once a week. After just four weeks, negative perceptions of aging declined significantly.

She also has had study subjects keep a journal of portrayals of elders on TV. It opened people’s eyes to the condescending and ugly stereotypes that bombard us and twist our perceptions and assumptions about aging. “The idea is to make people more aware of both their own age beliefs, and the age-belief messaging they encounter in everyday life,” Levy says.

I asked Levy if our collective view of aging has improved as the elder population has ballooned and more of us hit and surpass 65. In fact, she told me, ageist biases have gotten worse.

She and her colleagues developed a computerized linguistic program and analyzed a database of more than 400 million words from books, newspapers, magazines, and academic journals going back 200 years. The team looked at adjectives that appeared most frequently with “elderly” and similar words, and at synonyms for “old people.” The language was generally positive until the late 1800s, when life expectancy for white people in America was 41 years. (Researchers at that time did not track life expectancy for other populations.) Since then, old-age-related verbiage has steadily become meaner and more dismissive. For example, the word geezer, which first appeared in 1900, became 11 times more frequent through the twentieth century.

Old people may be the last group our society feels free to mock, Levy says. She points to news reports about cruel jokes early in the COVID pandemic, when people over age 65 were dying at exceptionally high rates and the term “boomer remover” became a widely shared meme on Twitter.

Reading research by scientists trying to unravel the mysteries of aging can make it hard to feel good about growing older. The idea of “curing” aging casts it as pathology. Published studies start, relentlessly, with bad news. “Aging is a degenerative process that leads to tissue dysfunction and death,” begins a typical paper.

“I think by labeling aging as a disease, it ignores the many strengths of aging and the many ways that there can be growth in later life,” Levy says.

The future of medicine

The more I learned about the science of longevity, the more excited I felt about the prospects for discoveries that will benefit all of us as we grow older. But as I approached 68, I couldn’t shake off nagging images of the tissue dysfunction and cell death occurring inside me.

Steve Horvath, developer of epigenetic clocks to measure biological age, offered to run one on me—a test with the anxiety-producing name of GrimAge. I sent him two tiny vials of my blood. A few months later I received the results: My biological age was 3.3 years lower than my chronological age.

The report offered a cheerful “congrats” and said, “You are already beating the clock!” Still, I felt let down. I certainly wasn’t in league with some of the longevity scientists I met, like David Sinclair, who exercise religiously, fast, take supplements or off-label drugs, and seem to buck the tempest of time.

Then I thought about my mother, still enjoying life in her late 90s. Becca Levy’s research convinced me that my mom’s outlook at least partly explains her vitality. I’ve never heard her grumble about her birthday or say she can’t do something because she’s too old, a complaint I’m starting to hear from friends my age.

“No,” she says, when I point this out. “I’m not too old. I might do it slower, and I might do less of it. But I’m not too old to dance or walk or do anything I like to do.”

She pauses. “Well, I wouldn’t swim anymore.”

“Because you haven’t done it in a long time?”

“Because I don’t like the way I look in a bathing suit.”

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