We’ve all heard the expression, “mind over matter,” but research is showing that, when it comes to older adults, the right attitude can have a positive influence on everything from cognitive functioning to life expectancy.
A Yale University study, reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that older adults with positive attitudes about aging had a life expectancy over seven years greater than that of peers with more negative attitudes. In fact, the researchers determined that positive self-perceptions had a stronger impact on longevity than more expected factors such as: socio-economic status, gender, lowered blood pressure or cholesterol, exercise, weight loss, or non-smoking.
A total of 660 women and men, aged 50 to 94, were followed over a 22-year time period in the study, which queried participants with true/false questions about their attitudes about aging, then tracked their life expectancy. A summary of the report was published by the American Psychological Association and noted the need to target both older adults and young people when using interventions to address perceptions on aging, as such attitudes begin to develop early in one’s life.
Other research has found that having an overall positive mood or attitude provides health benefits for older adults. One study, funded by a National Science Foundation grant and published in the journal Cognition and Emotion, found a strong relationship between positive thinking and gains in seniors’ decision-making ability and working memory.
A total of 46 adults, ages 64 to 85, participated in the study. Half of the group was given “mood boosters” such as thank you cards, bags of candy, and positive images on their testing screens, while the second group did not. Participants then completed tests that measured decision-making and memory. The study found that those who were placed in a good mood prior to testing had significantly higher test results than the “neutral” group.
For older adults, independence is very reliant upon the ability to make good decisions and remember daily tasks and functions. In a summary of her research, Ohio State University professor and study co-author Ellen Peters noted, “Given the current concern about cognitive declines in the aged, our findings are important for showing how simple methods to improve mood can help improve cognitive functioning and decision performance in older adults, just like they do in younger people.”
For those of us who provide professional or family care to older adults, providing moments of cheer and encouragement can be a simple and effective intervention. January is national Mental Wellness Month in the U.S., so it seems a fitting time to look at how a cornerstone of total wellness – the power of positive thinking – can have such a meaningful impact on the lives of seniors and aging baby boomers.