by Buck Institute

Healthy attitudes, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love getting older

By Eric Verdin, President and CEO of the Buck Institute

While we continue to use rigorous science to uncover more of the mysteries of aging, seemingly every day brings a new study or research finding. We hear often about how a positive attitude can be a helpful contributing factor in everything from getting a great score on a test to enjoying a better interpersonal relationship. Last year, a widely-reported study in the journal PLOS One from Becca Levy at the Yale School of Public Health, her colleagues Martin Slade and Robert Pietrzak of Yale Medical School, and Luigi Ferrucci, Scientific Director at the National Institute on Aging, suggested that positive attitudes about aging can actually reduce the risk of dementia in older adults.

Surf the internet or turn on your TV and you’ll readily see that keeping a positive attitude about aging might be tough. I’m sure most people over the age of 35 have at some point bemoaned the idealization of youth culture in fashion, entertainment and advertising. In a nutshell, the stereotypes seem to suggest that to be young, vibrant and dewy-eyed is good; to be older, slower and perhaps a bit more skeptical (wiser?) is bad. It’s no wonder that some of us internalize these thoughts and come to view aging as, well, a bummer. The new Yale study—which follows a cohort of 4,765 people, average age 72, who were free of dementia at the study’s onset— suggests that negative attitude could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

On the other hand, having positive attitudes about aging is shown to be protective against dementia, even among those who carry one of its strongest risk factors – the e4 variant of the APOE gene. Indeed, the study showed that APOE e4 carriers with positive beliefs about aging had less than a 3% risk of developing dementia, while those with negative beliefs were twice as likely to develop dementia over the four-year duration of the study.

Age beliefs were assessed with the five-item Attitude toward Aging (ATA) subscale of the Philadelphia Geriatric Center Moral Scale which asks for the degree one agrees or disagrees with statements such as “The older I get, the more useless I feel.” From a moral and societal perspective, it is unfortunate that many older adults buy into negative stereotypes, and the results of this study suggest that perhaps some sort of public health campaign to combat the societal sources of such negative age beliefs is called for.

While further research is needed in this area, the Levy study’s suggestion that positive age beliefs offer protection against dementia is encouraging. I am confident that as the aging field’s discoveries are translated into the clinic and age-related disease is no longer viewed as an inevitable part of the aging process, positive age beliefs, and their attendant potential health benefits, will naturally rise.  

This study joins a robust legacy of literature from the fields of public health and psychology that have looked at the correlations between longevity and various personality traits including everything from optimism and extraversion to openness to experience and agreeableness. Results for most variables are, not surprisingly, conflicting depending on the subgroups studied. There is one trait however, that shows a positive correlation for all groups across a broad range of studies: conscientiousness, which typically refers to dutifulness, organization and responsibility. Conscientiousness is almost universally correlated with longevity, probably because the most conscientious among us are most apt to be self-disciplined and follow conventional wisdom when it comes to taking care of ourselves, watching our diet, and exercising regularly.

So what about the flip side? Is there a trait that universally limits longevity? Interestingly here, researchers have long suspected an inverse relationship between longevity and neuroticism, or the tendency to be oversensitive and to experience more than average amounts of sadness, anger, and anxiety. It turns out, however, that all that anxiety may not have an impact on lifespan. As the writer John D. Mayer put it in a popular survey of personality predictors of longevity, “Neuroticism may make you worry about living a shorter life, but it will not actually lead to a shorter life.”


Science is showing that while chronological aging is inevitable, biological aging is malleable. There's a part of it that you can fight, and we are getting closer and closer to winning that fight.

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