Americans are living longer than ever. Over the past century, the average American lifespan has increased a whopping 27 years. What’s the secret to a long and healthy life? Good genes help. You get them from your parents. And since you can’t pick your parents, this avenue to a longer life is out of your control. Besides, the value of good genes is in question. New research from Yale University found that genes contribute only 25% to the length of your life. This seems to mean that other factors, such as health behaviors and mental health, play a role in longevity, too.
The Yale study claims that a good attitude helps keep your heart pumping and your feet tapping an additional 7.6 years on average. An optimistic outlook adds more years to your life than low blood pressure (4 years or less), low cholesterol (4 years or less), a healthy weight (1 to 3 years) and regular exercise (1 to 3 years).
“These are the good old days”
The Yale study suggests that people who believe negative stereotypes about growing old may face a reduced life expectancy. If you think old people are frail and sickly, you’ll probably see yourself as frail and sickly when you get old.
Frank Landry, a 79-year-old retired dentist from New England, didn’t grow up with these negative stereotypes. He watched his elders remain active and involved as they aged. And he’s followed their example. His long list of activities includes working as a hospice volunteer and fundraiser and helping the Rotary Club support widows and widowers. “Some people sit down and won’t do anything,” he says. “I think you have to accept what you have and work with it.”
The Yale researchers would likely agree. They point to a series of studies that looked at the relationship between death rates and holidays. There were more deaths in the month after the holiday than in the month before it. According to the study authors, these findings imply that people who have something to look forward to, such as a holiday or special event, want to stay alive to mark the occasion. Helping others through volunteer work or simply staying busy with social activities, hobbies, travel and grandkids may have the same effect.
“We shall overcome”
You know what you’re supposed to do to stay healthy and live long: eat well, exercise regularly and stay away from smoking and excessive drinking. These behaviors require dedication and self-discipline.
People who are optimistic are better able to stick to good behaviors because they know that good habits are the result of smart choices they make. People who don’t have an optimistic outlook are likely to take a more passive approach to health. They may believe that they have no control over their weight or diet so they don’t make the effort to practice good health habits.
When faced with a health crisis, optimists adapt and recover more quickly because they actively participate in their treatment and recovery. They believe their actions directly contribute to improved health.
Finally, optimists do not feel the sense of hopelessness so typical of pessimists. As a result, optimists experience less stress and less depression overall.
“Put on a happy face”
To stay optimistic as you age or to create an optimistic point of view, take these steps:
- Realize that setbacks are a part of life
No one can escape hard times. When you find yourself in a stressful situation, tell yourself that time passes. There can’t be valleys without peaks. Look for the next peak.
- Visualize a positive outcome
The movie “Field of Dreams” taught us “If you build it, they will come.” The same can apply to your health. If you aim for the best outcome, your actions will likely follow.
- Reject negative messages about aging
Media and advertising would have us believe the world is filled only with youth. Just because TV often depicts age as being equal to infirmity doesn’t mean you have to buy that message. Once you spot these falsehoods, you’ll be a lot less susceptible to them.
- Find examples of people who have aged gracefully
The late Paul Newman didn’t let age slow him down. In his 80s, he continued to race cars and run a food company. Martha Stewart, who will turn 70 in 2011, is busier and more successful than ever, with an empire that includes magazines, TV and products. Picture them the next time you think your age is a roadblock to an accomplishment.
- Develop a strong social network
Friends play a key role in helping you through any crisis, health or otherwise. Your network can also include counselors, clergy and support groups. Even optimists need help sometimes. When Frank Landry’s first wife died of cancer, he was devastated. “I decided to take whatever help I could get,” he says. “I joined two grief support groups and accepted counseling. I was in a hole and that brought me out and made it possible for me to live again.”
If you dread the thought of growing old, work now to change your perceptions and develop a more optimistic outlook. It may lead to a healthier, longer life.