Monday, January 4, 2010

Pessimism, Ageism, and Death

How do you feel about the elderly? Do you think they are less intelligent? or absent minded? or bad drivers? Well, if you do, you may be more likely to have a heart attack or stroke than someone who doesn't hold such views...

A study out earlier this year (Levy et al. 2009) showed that people under the age of 50 who had negative thoughts about old age (or, more specifically, the elderly) were more likely to have cardiac events later in life.  Sampling from the Baltimore longitudinal study of aging, researchers found that people who regarded the elderly as "less intelligent" or "absent minded" were almost twice as likely to have heart attacks or strokes than those who held more positive attitudes.  So what do your opinions about old people have to do with your health as you age?  Well, it is likely that your beliefs in and of themselves are not necessarily bringing about ill health, but rather people who hold more negative stereotypes may be more likely suffer from greater stress, or poor coping skills, or, it may be that their poor attitudes are reflective of their already not feeling as healthful or energetic or happy as those who have more positive opinions of the elderly.  It may be that people who have better opinions of the elderly are also people who tend to exercise more, or eat healthier foods... there is no real way of knowning whether or not healthy people are more optimistic about growing old because they are healthy, or because their positive outlook on life actually enhances their health and longevity.
If I had to guess, I would say your best bet is to focus on the things that we know positively impact your health (get more exercise, eat right, get better sleep, keep up positive relationships with friends, etc.) and if you do that, you will likely improve the way you feel, and your outlook on things, probably even on getting old and the elderly (and other people) in general... Or, you could just try telling yourself over and over again that old people are just as capable as young people and hope for the best.  Let me know which one works out better.

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