Staying Alive with Attitude: Beliefs about aging sway seniors’ survival

Small-town America has a life-enhancing lesson for people who are at least 50 years old: Individuals, those in the heartland’s middle class, anyway, who have a positive outlook about aging live around 7 years longer than those who take a dim view of their prospects as seniors.

“People who have positive views about themselves as they age somehow cope with society’s negative attitudes toward the elderly,” says psychologist Becca R. Levy of Yale University. “These individuals’ positive self-perceptions also can prolong their lives.”

The longevity advantage measured is nothing to sneeze at. It exceeds the 1 to 4 years of added life linked to traits such as having low systolic blood pressure, low cholesterol, moderate body weight, and no history of cigarette smoking.

The 7-year survival edge for seniors with an upbeat attitude toward aging remained after the researchers statistically accounted for age, sex, income, loneliness, and physical capability to engage in household and social activities.

The new study appears in the August Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Levy and her coworkers tapped into data collected in 1975 by other researchers from 338 men and 322 women, ages 50 to 94, living in a small Ohio town. Those data included five items that probed attitudes toward aging. Participants reported the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with statements such as, “As you get older, you are less useful” and “I have as much pep as I did last year.”

According to mortality data gathered until 1998, participants citing positive views toward their advancing years lived substantially longer than those with negative views did.

Levy’s group also found that a person’s “will to live” provides part of the explanation of the link between survival and self-perceptions of aging. The researchers determined individuals’ will to live from their reports of feeling “empty” or “full,” “hopeless” or “hopeful,” and “worthless” or “worthy.” No differences in the will to live emerged among groups of people who were employees, housewives, or retirees.

The link between attitude toward aging and survival may also reflect elevated physiological reactions to stress among people with negative views, Levy theorizes.

The strength of the new link is “surprising and intriguing,” remarks psychologist Heiner Maier of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany. Maier and his colleagues have found a weaker but still statistically significant survival advantage for Berlin residents, ages 70 and up, who reported being satisfied with their lives.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.