As we age, our risk of diseases and chronic health conditions increases. Heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke all become more common as we get older. A healthy lifestyle, nutritious diet and regular exercise can help avoid or delay these conditions. And there’s another important thing you can do as well.
It’s said that where the mind goes, the body follows. Your outlook on life has a tremendous effect on your state of health. We’ve all heard that a positive and optimistic attitude can make you healthier. Studies have found that people with happy dispositions recover faster from disease and surgery. They also have better overall health and longer lifespans.
But can a positive attitude protect seniors from the physical and mental ravages of aging? And can you improve your health by changing your outlook?
To answer these questions, psychologists gathered data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS), which has been collecting data from thousands of Americans age 50 and over for two decades. The study recorded seniors’ responses to questions like “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best,” or “If something can go wrong for me, it will”. It also recorded their self-assessments about their state of health, and physician diagnoses of high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, arthritis, stroke, lung disease, and emotional and psychological problems.
The researchers found that respondents who reported higher levels of optimism also tended to have significantly better health. Moreover, people whose recorded levels of optimism increased over a period of several years also reported improved health over the same period. The researchers compared results on the same subjects four years apart. They found seniors who became more optimistic over time also enjoyed significantly better health at the second measurement than at the first.
Is optimism something you’re born with? About 25% of your optimism is hereditary, but 75% is a product of social influences, personal experiences, and simply choosing to be more optimistic. So if you’re naturally not inclined to be a glass-half-full kind of person, you can gradually train yourself to change, and this change can have a significant positive effect on your health.
Why does optimism produce better health? Optimistic people are less likely to smoke, are more physically active, more likely to eat healthy foods, and have stronger social networks. Optimists also pursue goals with more focus, and handle setbacks better. They are more likely to work out coping mechanisms to prevent and overcome obstacles. These coping strategies may be dietary and lifestyle changes to ward off diseases of aging, or strategies for coping with obstacles in their personal lives.
People who are optimistic are more likely to view obstacles or setbacks as chances to learn and start anew. Those who are less optimistic are more likely to give up, focus on negative emotions, or engage in avoidance strategies like watching TV, drinking, or taking drugs.
So an optimistic person facing with the prospect of age-related diseases might respond by working out a plan to eat better, exercise more, visit a doctor, and engage in rewarding activities like socializing and volunteering. A less optimistic person might respond by drinking, watching TV, being socially isolated, and feeling dejected or resigned.
If you want to maintain physical and mental health in your senior years, try focusing on the brighter side of life. Cultivate an expectation that everything will work out, and prepare effective coping strategies for dealing with inevitable problems and barriers.