If You Believe This, It Could Add 7.5 Years to Your Life, Study Finds
Changing your point of view could help you live longer.
If you could do something to add more healthy years to your life, you'd do it—wouldn't you? Of course, certain things that are proven to help with longevity, like cutting junk food out of your diet, avoiding alcohol, and getting regular exercise, may not be as easy to put into practice as we might wish. But what if simply shifting your thinking could make a difference in the length of your life?
One doctor is spreading the word that, in fact, your beliefs have a much greater impact on how long you'll live than you probably realize, and she's backing it up with eye-opening data from a study that supports her claim. Read on to find out how changing your point of view could help you live longer—and feel better throughout those extra years.
READ THIS NEXT: Walking Exactly This Much a Week Adds Years to Your Life, Study Says.
Life expectancy has been steadily rising over time.
Becca Levy, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health and professor of psychology at Yale University, is the author of Breaking the Age Code, which explores how beliefs about aging impact our longevity. In her book, she points out that over the span of human history, our lifespans have effectively tripled. "In the last 120 years, we have added thirty years to life expectancy," she says.
However, she writes, not everyone views this as a positive development. "Instead of viewing the global increase in longevity as the victory that humanity has dreamt of for thousands of years, it is largely portrayed as a natural disaster that will burden world populations." Why? "There is a perception commonly presented in the media that increasing longevity will sap the public coffers and overfill our hospitals," she explains.
READ THIS NEXT: People Who Live Past 105 Have This in Common, New Study Says.
Ageism is rampant in our society.
Structural ageism, says Levy, is largely to blame for the media's—and our own—negative attitude toward increased longevity. As an example, she cites older job applicants being consistently passed over for younger workers. This has been well-documented in multiple studies, including a 2017 study published in Frontiers in Psychology which found that hiring managers' own views on aging impacted their decisions.
Levy also laments the lack of positive representation of older people on television, in the movies, and across all types of media. In her book, she writes at length about Emmy Award-winning actor Doris Roberts, who co-starred on the beloved sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond before passing away at age 90 in 2016. In a hearing on ageism in 2002, Roberts testified before Congress: "My peers and I are portrayed as dependent, helpless, unproductive, and demanding rather than deserving," Roberts said. "In reality, the majority of seniors are self-sufficient middle-class consumers with more assets than most young people and the time and talent to offer society."
"There's been research that shows that when people of a group are not represented in media, that that can lead to kind of marginalization of that group," Levy tells Best Life.
Our beliefs influence our health.
Ageism doesn't just affect how we feel about ourselves as we get older—it has a measurable effect on our bodies, as well. "We have found evidence that it can impact a number of different health systems, including the cardiovascular and cognitive systems," Levy says.
"One of the reasons that it has an impact on so many different systems is that these age beliefs can operate as a lens on how we take in information and how much stress we experience," she continues. "And that can also act as an upstream factor and impact our health… including cortisol levels and cardiovascular response to stress. Those mechanisms in turn can have an impact on a number of different systems in our bodies."
For more health news sent directly to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.
Having positive feelings about aging can impact how long you live.
In her research, Levy looked at a study conducted between 1975 and 1995 that included data from about a thousand participants over the age of 50 living in Oxford, Ohio. Subjects were asked a number of questions about their health, lives, and families, as well as about their attitude toward getting older. Although the study provided "one of the richest and most detailed perspectives on aging in late twentieth-century America," according to Levy, no one had ever followed up by recording how long the participants had lived after the completion of the study.
When Levy did so, she found something shocking: "Participants with the most positive views of aging were living, on average, seven and a half years longer than those with the most-negative views." Her research found that people's beliefs about aging transcended "gender, race, socioeconomic status, age, loneliness, and health. Age beliefs stole or added almost eight years to their lives."
Other factors that many of us might assume would make a big impact on longevity were less important than beliefs about aging. Having low cholesterol and low blood pressure only added an average of four years to people's lives, not smoking added three years, and a low body mass index added just one year.
Becoming more aware of negative messages about aging is a good first step toward ending ageism.
"It's hard not to take in some of the negative messages about aging," says Levy. Ultimately, she believes that "the one thing [we could do to improve longevity] would be to reduce structural ageism." However, since that goal is not something people can accomplish on an individual level, she suggests that "becoming more active consumers of media" is one way to combat negative views of aging. "Watching proactively and becoming aware of the images of aging… is helpful," she explains.
Medical professionals, too, could do more to encourage their patients' positive feelings about getting older. "One of the ways to improve that would be to improve medical education and improve access to quality geriatrics courses, and also to add information about ageism… to become aware of when patients have been exposed to ageism, that might be impacting their health. That's something that would be great to add to medical training," Levy says. "[We need] to find ways to accept and celebrate aging."