Watch Your Attitude: Research Shows That “Feeling Old” Can Easily Become a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Philosopher Descartes may not have known exactly how true his words were when he wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” But new findings from Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Services have shown a strong link between the belief that you are aging and the manifestation of real effects of aging in your body. In other words, growing old can become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Since it’s important to us to bring our readers information about how to stay fit and healthy financially and physically, it’s appropriate that we make sure we discuss mental health, too. In this recent article from HealthDay, writer Amy Norton covers the study, its findings, and the remarkable theory that the way you see the world – and yourself – may be having a real, physical effect on you.
Stress and Health – A Strong Relationship
“We’ve known that there’s a strong relationship between perceived stress and physical health,” says lead researcher at OSU Dakota Witzel. This appears to be true no matter how old you are. Elevated stress is linked to poor eating habits, less exercise, and long-term health consequences like high blood pressure and increased risk of heart disease.
But the effect on aging adults can be incredibly stark, and measurable. Norton explains that older adults who dread aging seem to report—and probably experience—more physical health symptoms on stressful days. “In contrast, people with more of a ‘golden years’ perspective seemed to have some protection against daily stress: They actually reported fewer health problems on days where they felt more stressed than usual,” Norton explains.
These new findings could “suggest that a brighter outlook on aging can be a buffer against the physical effects of daily stress,” says Norton, but she is quick to add a disclaimer that this is not meant to blame anyone for their physical discomfort, nor that anyone should ignore symptoms that could lead to problems.
Rather, “people should be aware that their perceptions of the aging process may affect how they feel, and ‘reframe’ that story if needed,” says Witzel. Call it the power of attitude over circumstances.
The Study and Its Findings
The study, which can be found in full in the Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences, utilized the survey data of 105 older adults in Oregon aged 52 to 88. Before beginning the study, the participants were asked to give an overall sense of their feelings about aging. After that, the daily surveys inquired about “their stress levels and a range of physical symptoms — such as fatigue, aches and pains, shortness of breath and upset stomach,” says Norton.
As might be expected, the average result was that the participants reported higher levels of physical symptoms on days when they experienced higher stress. “However,” Norton adds, “it turned out that connection depended on whether people had a positive or negative outlook on aging: If it was the ‘glass half-empty’ variety, high-stress days brought more physical symptoms. That was not the case for people with a more positive outlook on aging.”
Where We Get Our Ideas About Aging Matters
Witzel explains that a person’s perceptions of aging are shaped throughout their lives from the way they see aging portrayed in media and through the older people they know. “If your parents or grandparents remained upbeat and vibrant as they grew older,” Witzel says, “your ideas on aging are probably different from someone whose older relatives were riddled with health problems, or complained about aging.”
But that’s not the whole story. Your attitude on aging probably has a lot to do with how you see life in general. James Maddux of George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, said, after reviewing the findings, that, “It seems like this is really getting at optimism versus pessimism. People who perceive the glass as half-full and have a sense of self-efficacy are less likely to ‘catastrophize’ physical symptoms and instead see them as manageable.”
On the other hand, pessimistic people are more likely to be—as Maddux puts it— “hyper-vigilant” to any physical discomfort, so they may report higher symptoms when asked in a subjective survey like this one.
A Circle of Positivity…Or Negativity
Does this mean that your bad attitude may be causing you stress and symptoms? Maddux says not necessarily. It’s more of a cycle of tendencies. “It’s like a circle,” he says, “so there’s no starting point.” But if that sounds bad, it isn’t. “It means there’s more places to intervene,” Maddux says.
We all know that telling others simply to “Be more optimistic” is poor advice. But Maddux is quick to point out that research shows that people can change their outlook and learn to catastrophize less. “Bodily pain is not solely a physical experience. And it’s important,” he says, “to be aware that our mental states affect our pain perceptions and responses. The pain you feel is a signal from your brain.”
In the end, there are many ways to change your outlook. Maddux recommends physical exercise, since physical activity has a proven effect on mental health. We would add that staying socially active is vital, since isolation and pessimism can go hand in hand. But regardless, seeking out ways to up your positivity isn’t just a good idea. It can save you a lot of headaches, both metaphorical and, if this study is any indication, literal.
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(originally reported at www.consumer.healthday.com)