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Sunday, October 9, 2022

How to Live Longer Without Exercising

A recent study emphasizes the amazing role of positive thinking on longevity. 

Movie icon Ingrid Bergman once said “getting old is like climbing a mountain; you get a little out of breath, but the view is much better.” Like Bergman, people who think in terms of what they gain as they age have an edge on everyone else, according to a 2022 paper by University Medicine Greifswald’s Susanne Wurm and Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research’s Sarah Schäfer. 

The German scholars found that you can actually have a longer life (and surely a better one!) by thinking about yourself and aging in positive terms. The authors looked at subjective age and views on aging, and what effect they had on lifespan. 

Perceptions are Key

Many of us have internalized negative perceptions of aging that can follow us throughout our lives. We may believe that senior citizens are uniformly grouchy and out of touch with the modern world. We likely even feel that way about ourselves at times. 

Lifestyle Factors Do Affect Lifespan

While it is entirely true that research shows positive thinking affects lifespan on its own, we can’t ignore that lifestyle factors have been shown to extend lifespan by a whopping 12 to 14 years. That’s a lot of time to volunteer at your favorite charity, contribute to the workforce, or guide the grandkids as they grow. So, remember to:
  • Get regular exercise
  • Keep at a healthy weight
  • Eat a diet rich in nutrients
  • Limit alcohol
  • Avoid smoking
The researchers found that it can happen via a series of incidents (“multiple thresholds”). Maybe we are confronted with a tech problem that we can’t figure out on our own, then we struggle at a task that used to be easy, and a month later a light goes out but dang if we can remember where we put the replacement bulb. We begin to think of ourselves as out of step and inept. 

We can turn around these negative perceptions by thinking in terms of gains, not losses. Of course, we all experience loss as we age, and it would be absurd to deny that reality. The trick is to be hopeful, and to expect good outcomes in spite of these losses. In other words, celebrate what we gain, and accept what we lose.

Positive People Live Longer

Wurm and Schäfer looked at a data set obtained from 1996 to 2019 of 2,400 Germans aged 40 to 85 at the beginning of the study. The authors controlled for physical illness, self-rated health, loneliness, life satisfaction, hope, and mood to concentrate on subjective perceptions of aging (SPA). They looked at death data in the group and sought to see what effect SPA had on longevity.

For example, if someone reported that, “Aging means to me that I can still learn new things,” they had a gain mentality. If they said, “For me, getting older means that I am less healthy” then they had a loss outlook. 

The authors concluded that, “In concrete terms, for individuals who perceived aging as less associated with ongoing development, mortality was about twice as high after 20 years compared to individuals with more gain-related SPA." This held true whether they were looking at the study participants who were in middle age or those who were much older. 

Gain Mentality

So how do we get a gain mentality? Think about what your life experience has brought you. You may take a little longer to figure out an issue with your computer, but you know how to work hundreds of other gadgets, cook a book’s worth of recipes, or care for a plethora of plants and trees. You can probably get a baby to sleep and settle an argument with calm wisdom. You have a treasure trove of knowledge and skills to call on, and it’s all due to age. 

A landmark 2019 study echoes the finding of the German paper. It found that positive thinking could result in a lifespan that was 11-15% longer than that of other seniors, even when controlled for gender, age, income, depression, and status of health. Those with positive thinking were more likely to have less stress, improved immunity, and a lower risk of heart disease. 

Those who start with a positive outlook on aging from a young age have a greater chance of living longer, according to research. Seniors can take this as encouragement to model positive attitudes in front of grandchildren and other youth. Learn new skills … especially ones the kids teach you! 

Getting old isn’t always easy. We have all experienced hardship and loss. But counting the years in friends and smiles, as John Lennon suggested, will extend and enrich our lives.