From the Harvard Women’s Health Watch
Do you look forward to the next week? Do you feel younger than your age? Do you have a sense of purpose? If so, you may already have done something to reduce your risk of degenerative diseases and may even be adding years to your life.
“Your outlook—having a sense of optimism and purpose—seems to be predictive of health outcomes,” says Dr. Laura Kubzansky, professor of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Dr. Kubzansky has studied the health effects of several forms of psychological well-being. She has found that emotional vitality—characterized by enthusiasm, hopefulness, engagement in life, and the ability to face life’s stresses with emotional balance—is associated with a substantially reduced risk of heart attack and stroke.
The benefit of emotional vitality
Dr. Kubzansky and her colleagues have analyzed data on emotional vitality and health outcomes from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES)—an ongoing national investigation that includes both personal interviews and medical exams.
In 2007 her team reported that among 6,025 participants, those who had high levels of emotional vitality at the onset had significantly lower rates of cardiovascular disease an average of 15 years later. In 2015 they reported that among 6,019 participants studied for an average of 16 years, greater emotional vitality was associated with a lower likelihood of having a stroke.
Other studies have indicated that people who retain emotional vitality during chronic illness and disability also do better. The Women’s Health and Aging Study involves more than 1,000 women 65 or older who have varying levels of disability but still live on their own. In that group, women with greater emotional vitality performed significantly better than their less-positive counterparts who had similar levels of disability on two tests designed to measure loss of function—walking speed and the ability to lift at least 10 pounds.
Acquiring emotional vitality
If you’ve had a glass-half-empty view of life for decades, assuming a new, more positive outlook might be challenging. However, the following suggestions may help.
Don’t dwell on your age. A growing body of research indicates that people who say they feel younger than their calendar years tend to live longer. A British study of 6,500 people with an average age of 65 found that those who said they felt older than their age had a 41% greater risk of dying in the next eight years compared with people who felt younger than their actual age. And when you do think about aging, valuing the positive aspects, like wisdom, experience, and emotional maturity, may add years to your life. In 2000 a team of researchers analyzed data from the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement. They found that men and women who had expressed positive views of aging 23 years earlier had lived an average of 7.5 years longer than those with negative attitudes.
Focus on what is most important. Quite a bit of research has determined that this focus improves with age, Dr. Kubzansky says. With experience, we become much better able to winnow out the issues that demand our attention from those that may just be minor annoyances. The next time you fret over a perceived slight or a delayed flight, it may help to view the situation through the perspective of your entire life’s experience.
Practice mindfulness. Increasing evidence indicates that regularly practicing mindfulness—focusing on the moment and accepting your thoughts and feelings nonjudgmentally—has a host of psychological benefits, from quelling anxiety to aiding weight loss. In the short term, it can keep you from returning to negative thoughts.
Keep a sense of purpose. You may feel that you’re at the top of your game just as you are forced to retire. That doesn’t mean that you have to accept the notion that you aren’t as capable as you once were. Instead, you can view this important life change as an opportunity to start a business; take up a sport, language, or musical instrument; or plunge into volunteer activities. Doing so could open new horizons.
References: How your attitudes affect your health. (2016). Harvard Women’s Health Watch, 23(9), 1.
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