Seniors/aging: Half empty or half full

“How many of you want to live long and grow old?” I asked the students at one of my dementia workshops. No one raised their hand. Then I asked them “So you want to die young?” They said, “We do not want to grow old”. One of them added “When I grow old, my hair will become white, my teeth will fall off, I will not be able to walk, and I will need help for everything!” They were only seeing the glass half-empty, and not half-full.

Contrastingly, several older adults I have met are either fully content with their life or have happily accepted aging with all its accompaniments. In fact, they were seeing the glass half-full and were better off feeling that way. In this day and age, people can live well for several years after retirement, despite having chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and so on.

A positive outlook on aging does more than lift one’s spirits. It can actually improve our health and increase our life span.

Research shows that people who live the longest have a relaxed and positive outlook on aging and life. Our attitude to aging does seem to affect our aging process itself.

Studies have shown the indisputable association between having a positive outlook and health benefits like lower blood pressure, less heart disease, better weight control and healthier blood sugar levels. Even when faced with an incurable illness, positive feelings and thoughts can greatly improve one’s quality of life.

In a study published in the Journal of Gerontology last year, involving more than 4000 people 50 years and older, researcher Becca Levy made a similar inference that people with a positive view of aging had better health outcomes and longevity.

According to Dr. Levy two possible mechanisms accounted for these findings. A positive view can enhance belief in one’s abilities; decrease perceived stress and foster health-promoting behaviors. People with positive outlook had lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of stress-related inflammation associated with heart disease and other illnesses, even after accounting for factors such as age, sex etc. compared to those with a negative outlook. They also lived significantly longer.

While some individuals are born with a natural disposition to see the positive side of things, others can learn to develop positive emotions when faced with extremely challenging or seemingly hopeless life situations, researchers claim.

Judith T. Moskowitz, a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, has developed a set of eight skills to help individuals cultivate positive emotions. In a study conducted at the University of California, San Francisco, she and colleagues found that people with new diagnoses of H.I.V. infection who practiced these skills carried a lower load of the virus, were more likely to take their medication correctly, and were less likely to need antidepressants to help them cope with their illness.

The eight skills to be developed through practice, which lead to positive emotions, include the following:

l Start a daily gratitude journal.

l Recognize and practice small acts of kindness daily

l Recognize a positive event each day

l Savor that event and record it in a journal or tell someone about it

l List a personal strength and note how you used it

l Set an attainable goal and note your progress

l Report a relatively minor stress and list ways to re-evaluate the event positively

l Practice mindfulness, being in the here and now and refrain from dwelling on the failures of the past and uncertainties of the future

Since winter is far from over for us, when you have the next snowfall, what thoughts do you wish to entertain?

Padmaja Genesh, who holds a bachelor degree in medicine and surgery as well as a bachelor degree in Gerontology, has spent several years teaching and working with health care agencies. A past resident of Red Deer, and a past board member of Red Deer Golden Circle, she is now a Learning Specialist at the Alzheimer Society of Calgary. Please send your comments to padmajaganeshy@yahoo.ca

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