Aging is inevitable.
Of course, we can do things to prevent or slow down the kind of degeneration people tend to associate with getting older. Think optimizing diet. Think getting enough sleep and exercise. Think treatments such as BHRT and chelation. These – and more – can help us to better health and more vitality later in life.
But another thing we can do has little to do with the body and everything to do with the mind: cultivate a positive attitude toward aging.
According to a study published late last year in Personality and Individual Differences, how you think about getting older can have direct effects on your health. Think of it as some terrible thing to endure, marked only by loss and a narrowing of life, you’re apt to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In the study, this was gauged by slower walking speeds and worse cognitive abilities over a two year span by older adults with negative views toward aging. And this was the case even after participants’ medications, mood, life circumstances and other health changes were taken into account.
“Furthermore,” notes a news release on the research,
negative attitudes towards ageing seemed to affect how different health conditions interacted. Frail older adults are at risk of multiple health problems including worse cognition. In the [study] sample frail participants with negative attitudes towards ageing had worse cognition compared to participants who were not frail. However frail participants with positive attitudes towards ageing had the same level of cognitive ability as their non-frail peers.
More recent research by the same authors suggests that negative attitudes toward aging also lead to less engagement with one’s community and social network, as well as decreased cognitive stimulation.
Of course, the big question is how you develop that attitude. It’s not like you can flip a switch and suddenly feel differently about something, especially if you’ve held that view for a long time. Sure, there are those who will say “fake it ‘til you make it” – i.e., pretend to have a good attitude until you actually do – but it can feel so inauthentic, it’s easy to just stop trying and fall back into our old, comfortable belief patterns.
But a positive attitude can be cultivated. Practices such as gratitude and mindfulness can help. It’s largely a matter of learning how to shift attention from the bad to the good, from the future to the present. Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh puts it most beautifully:
Fear keeps us focused on the past or worried about the future. If we can acknowledge our fear, we can realize that right now we are okay. Right now, today, we are still alive, and our bodies are working marvelously. Our eyes can still see the beautiful sky. Our ears can still hear the voices of our loved ones.
Striking a similar note is a quote you may have seen floating around on Facebook or other social media site, usually – but wrongly – attributed to Buddha:
Let us rise up and be thankful, for if we didn’t learn a lot today, at least we learned a little, and if we didn’t learn a little, at least we didn’t get sick, and if we got sick, at least we didn’t die; so, let us be thankful.
There is always something to be grateful for, and to acknowledge that is to acknowledge that we’re not lacking, that we do have good things in our lives.
There are many resources out there to help you develop a positive attitude – not just toward aging but toward life in general. Here are a few of our favorite tip sheets to get you started:
Image by Army Medicine, via Flickr