Aging does not have to be an unpleasant process. In fact, according to a recent publication in the world-renowned medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine, feeling younger (and, by definition, possessing a zest for life) can actually extend life (Rippon & Steptoe, 2015). Despite the facts of certain medical conditions which depend entirely on the particular health circumstances of a given senior, the person’s mental and emotional outlook and general attitude can make the benefits of aging trump the challenges. A person who feels young, this research letter from JAMA says, will live longer than someone who feels his or her age.
A 2009 study published in Circulation, a journal of the American Heart Association (Tindle, Chang, et al.) indicated that psychological factors influenced the risk of mortality from coronary heart disease, related conditions like cardiovascular disease and unrelated diseases like cancer. Depression, anxiety, anger, and negative/hostile attitudes toward other people predicted earlier death rates. Optimism, on the other hand, reduced the risks of disease and mortality.
Symptoms of happiness
Seniors who feel young show it in a variety of ways. If a grandfather in his mid-eighties is able to spend time with his grandchildren and great-grandchildren playing in the park, it is likely he does not quite feel his age. A mother of four in her sixties can spend time serving her community through soup kitchens and canned food donations, showing that she continues to find purpose in her post-retirement, post-childrearing life. In general, people who feel young continue to learn and to participate in new and interesting activities, enjoy social time, and engage with others actively. They are not usually depressed or lonely, and they feel generally hopeful about their lives.
Seniors who feel young also tend to exercise more and participate in the physical acts of caring for themselves. This means that they generally care for their own hygiene and homes, cook for themselves and their families, and venture outside of the home periodically, as well as engage in traditional forms of exercise such as jogging or swimming. This does not mean that those who have mobility limitations cannot feel young; being active is simply a shortcut to a more youthful feeling. Feeling and thinking young also means not abandoning activities they love or once participated in fully; finding ways to continue participating in marathons, hiking, or other beloved physical hobbies, even if it comes with some modifications for lessened mobility, can prevent seniors from giving up altogether on physical activity.
There is also a mental sharpness that comes with feeling young. Seniors who challenge themselves mentally and socially often show a mental youthfulness. Learning is a key way that youthful-feeling seniors stay younger longer, including returning to school for formal education or involving themselves in the community or with a religious group.
How to foster happiness and youth
Feeling young while aging can be hard work. Seniors do well to keep in touch with their past interests and hobbies, including social interactions, community service, work-related industry trends, movies and books, hobbies (like traveling or quilt-making) and even doing brain teasers such as crossword puzzles. Finding ways to avoid the feeling that aging has left a senior without access to or contact with the things they loved in youth will help them continue to wake up each morning with purpose.
Maintaining a positive attitude and strong mental health will also help seniors feel younger. Making time, if possible, for seniors to see a counselor, therapists, or even religious figures such as pastors or rabbis in order to check in on their overall feelings regarding their lives is important. Using this time to process and reflect on their accomplishments and challenges, as well as receive support from a trusted observer, will help stave off possible loneliness, hopelessness, and depression, which can shorten lifespans. Seniors should also continue to be social whenever possible, including meeting new people. Making time for family visits, outings to community events (especially those that are specifically designed for seniors to connect), and new activities like ballet performances or school plays can allow for social connections to be made and maintained.
Caregivers may set “think and feel young” goals with an elderly loved one. Would the person enjoy a golfing tour of golf courses? Could he or she make specific home goods for each grandchild? Does the senior desire a working knowledge of a new field or language? Reaching goals that are tuned into seniors’ interests garners a sense of satisfaction, just as any accomplishment does.
Family members do well to keep seniors from cutting themselves off from youth culture. Many older people have trouble relating to technology and new entertainment (and thus to their own, younger family members) because they are confused by or do not have access to youth culture. Social media, television entertainment, and time with young family and community members allow seniors to learn new skills and “stay young” by hanging out with youth. Finding the new music, fashion, cinema, and books (as well as accessing the vast information on the Internet) will keep seniors feeling less like people left behind by time and more like people who have not settled into their ways quite yet.
Older people do well to refuse to accept stereotypes of aging and older people. Aging need not be a time of mandatory wheelchair use and senility and believing that it must increase the chances that it will be. Instead, thinking of aging as a time to continue working, growing, and participating in life–which is what aging truly is–will help aging people embrace the changes and challenges. Yes, health often deteriorates; yes, sometimes mobility aids or increased medications are needed; and yes, a senior may feel somewhat disconnected from the fast-moving world by a certain age. Yet all of these things can be handled with support and a positive attitude. Seniors who feel young and accept the facts of aging will extend their healthy years, yielding more happy memories and goals reached.
Kravetz, Dennis. (July 23, 2013.) 8 Ways to Stay Young as You Age. Huffington Post, Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dennis-kravetz/aging-gracefully_b_3280506.html. Retrieved May 5, 2016.
Godman, Heidi. (December 17, 2014). Feeling young at heart may help you live longer. Harvard Health Publications. Available at http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/feeling-young-heart-may-help-live-longer-201412177598. Retrieved May 5, 2016.
Graham, Judith. (December 19, 2012.) Older People Become What They Think, Study Shows. The New York Times. Available at http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/19/older-people-are-what-they-think-study-shows/. Retrieved May 5, 2016.
Prigg, Mark. (December 15, 2014). Being young at heart really CAN help you live longer: Researchers say those who feel younger die later. DailyMail.com. Available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2875340/Being-young-heart-really-help-live-longer-Researchers-say-feel-younger-real-age-extend-lifespan.html. Retrieved Mary 5, 2016.
Rippon, Isla and Andrew Steptoe. (2015). Feeling Old vs. Being Old: Associations Between Self-perceived Age and Mortality. JAMA Internal Medicine, 175(2): 307-309. Available at http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=2020288. Retrieved May 5, 2016.
Shah, Yagana. (December 16, 2014). Feel Young At Heart and You’ll Enjoy A Longer Life, Study Says. Huffington Post, Available at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/16/young-at-heart-live-longer_n_6329274.html. Retrieved May 5, 2016.
Tindle, H.A., Chang, Y-F., Kuller, L. H., Manson, J. E., Robinson, J. G., Rosal, M. C., Siegle, G. J., Matthews, K.A. (August 25, 2009). Optimism, Cynical hostility, and Incident Coronary Heart Disease and Mortality in the Women’s Health Initiative. Circulation, 120(8): 656-662.American Heart Association. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2901870/. Retrieved June 6, 2016.