Today, the planet is shared by nearly 8,000,000,000 people. Despite the staggering number of individuals, there’s one thing we all have in common: every one of us is aging.
From the moment we’re born to the moment we die, we all age. However, the matter of ‘how well’ we age is, to some extent, up to each of us.
According to Dr. Catherine Sanderson, Chair of Psychology Department at Amherst College and author of The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity (and speaker at the recent Baystate Health Senior Class event "The Art of Aging: A Prescription for Mind and Body", what we think and how we feel about aging can have a significant impact on how we actually age.
She notes, “The way we think about ourselves and the world around us dramatically impacts our happiness, health, how fast or slow we age, and even how long we live. In fact, people with a positive mindset about aging live on average 7.5 years longer than those without.
“Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated that a simple shift of mindset can influence everything from how well you handle pain and enjoy a meal to how strongly you might or might not feel the effects of a cold and even your ability to lose weight. In the same vein, your mindset about aging influences how you actually age. If you buy into the notion that old people are forgetful and doddering, you’re essentially creating a future model for how you will age. But, with the right mindset, you can change your future for the better.”
While Sanderson acknowledges that exactly how mindset actually does these things isn’t clear, she says, “The substantial influence it exerts on our psychological and physical health is well-established. What that means for each of us as individuals is that we have the power to improve the quality of our life as we age by improving the quality of our mindset. ”
10 strategies for developing a positive mindset for better aging
Sanderson says that achieving a better quality of life—and even adding a few more years to that life—doesn’t have to be difficult. “There are actually a number of strategies you can adopt that can greatly improve your happiness levels, reduce anxiety, and lead to more fulfilling life experiences. Because not every strategy is a fit for everyone, I’m going to share 10 from which to choose. The more strategies you implement, the greater your chance of success at achieving a better mindset but even just implementing one can really improve your aging experience.”
1. Change your stereotypes
Western culture tends to focus on negative stereotypes of the elderly. However, there are numerous examples of individuals doing and achieving great things well into their 80s and 90s. Seek those out and be inspired by them.
Exercise is important because it stimulates brain development and neural connections which leads to a sharper mind. It’s also effective at lowering levels of depression and anxiety. Exercise doesn’t have to be super-structured or rigorous. Dancing in place, taking a walk, chair yoga — it all counts. Get moving and get happier.
Meditation is easy, inexpensive and, if you use some apps, free. More importantly, even after just a few months, meditation can strengthen neural connections and activity and lead people to be kinder and more empathetic.
4. Be a lifelong learner
Engaging in new activities and ways of thinking is a great way to exercise their brain. It doesn’t have to be high-level stuff to have an impact. Painting or cooking classes, attending a lecture, doing crosswords, and reading are all good ways to keep flexing your gray matter which only improves how well it works.
5. Find some faith
Studies show that people with religious or spiritual beliefs have higher levels of happiness and longer life expectancies than those that don’t. One theory on this finding is that those who practice faith are essentially practicing a type of positive mindset. And, in many instances, are surrounded by other people who have positive mindsets which also has benefits.
6. Be giving
Being generous is associated with better happiness and health. People who give their time, talents, money, even blood, tend to live longer and have great self-confidence and self-esteem.
7. Focus on positivity
Positive thinking has been shown to increase life span, improve physical health, and lower rates of depression. While it's unclear why people who engage in positive thinking experience these benefits, one theory holds that having a positive outlook enables you to cope better with stressful situations, which reduces the negative effects of stress on the body.
8. Get a dog
Research shows that pets—especially dogs—can provide excellent social support, stress relief, reduce blood pressure, and other health benefits. In fact, staring into a dog’s eyes has been showed to increase levels of the happy-inducing chemical oxytocin in the brain.
9. Spend time with positive people
Positivity is contagious. People who spend time with other positive people experience higher levels of happiness and health and increased longevity.
10. Build good relationships
As COVID has demonstrated for far too many of us, when we feel disconnected, we experience physical state of stress. In fact, prolonged disconnectedness can be as harmful to the body as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Find ways to connect and stay connected with others. Phone calls, virtual meetings, letter writing have all been proven to raise your spirits and improve your health.
Don’t Neglect Your Physical Health
Staying healthy isn’t on you alone—you can get expert help. One big key to aging well is having a primary care provider (PCP). Your PCP will address you as a whole person, including your values and preferences, chronic conditions, common ailments, and life stages. And research shows that people with primary care tend to be healthier—they’re more likely to have diseases caught early, their chronic conditions are managed, and they’re up to date on regular check-ups.
“It is often said that one of the constant things in life is change. This has never been so true when we talk about aging,” says Dr. Albert Agomaa of Baystate Family Medicine - Northampton. Your primary care provider (PCP)is your partner in ensuring that you remain healthy and adapt to the changes. Your PCP will talk with you about screening tests that you may need (like mammograms and colonoscopies), work with you in managing your chronic medical conditions, update immunizations, and identify any assistance or tools you may need to enjoy a better quality of life.