In 2009, 100,000 American women, middle-aged and older, demonstrated that when it comes to health and aging, our attitudes matter. Those with a more hopeful outlook on life (optimists) were less likely than those with a more negative view of the future (pessimists) to smoke, or suffer from diabetes, depression or high blood pressure. And the former “lived healthier and longer lives.”
From another study, at much greater risk were younger people “with a high degree of cynical hostility…a deep mistrust of others.”
So says Dr. Hilary Tindle, researcher and author of “Up — How Positive Outlook Can Transform Our Health and Aging.”
The New York Times reviewer praised the book as “not simply another self-help book, but a thought-provoking and intelligent read.” As an optimist, I didn’t spend much time on the self-help part of the book; I was more interested in the “thought-provoking” piece.
The author divides aging into three parts (consider my summary a grave oversimplification): wrinkles and slumping posture; deterioration in the brain; and changes in the cells of all our organs. All in all not a picture to promote optimism. The good news is that while the skin is not likely to lose its wrinkles, we still have a chance to effect changes in other body parts.
Before I was willing to believe anything else Tindle said, I needed to know what she meant by optimism. With this quote she convinced me to keep reading. “Optimism shares very little with those bumper sticker mantras, which seem to be unrealistically optimistic.”
It seems that if we want to age well, we have no choice but to nourish a positive outlook. The prescription? A significant element comes back to my last blog post: keep moving. “Research on mice and men (and women) has demonstrated physical activity’s clear benefits to our brain, both for helping us manage negative states of mind such as anxiety, sadness, and addiction cravings, and for improving memory long term.”
In addition to getting exercise, Tindle says we need to sleep, spend time in open green space, and maintain a social support network. For readers whose genes and traumatic early life experiences make it difficult to change perspective, “Up” has many specific strategies for steps to help pessimists move farther along the scale toward optimism.
After reading the book, I still struggle with the reality that I am optimistic about my future and pessimistic, even a bit cynically hostile, about the future of our country and of many people less fortunate than I. But I tell myself to stay focused on healthy aging, especially to keep moving, for I won’t be of any help to others if I don’t.