“He’s a young 82.”

“She’s an old 67.”

“He’s just not all there anymore.”

“She’s still as sharp as a tack.”

Every senior views and experiences the aging process a little differently. Some fight being “old” every step of the way, trying to hold onto their youth for as long as time and their body will allow. Others accept the inevitable, resigned to the realities of aging, even embracing this phase of life. While we know that our diets, lifestyle habits, and genetics have a large impact on how long we live and how healthy we are as we get older, could some of the aging process simply be a state of mind? A recent study out of Ireland suggests that the answer is “yes.”

Quantifying what it means to “age well”

Conducted by researchers at Trinity College in Dublin, The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (sic), also known by the acronym TILDA, is described as “a large-scale, nationally representative, longitudinal study on ageing in Ireland.” The primary goal of the research is to make the Emerald Isle the best place for seniors by finding ways to improve policies, services, and businesses that focus on the aging population.

Looking at a group of about 8,500 participants age 50 and over, the ongoing TILDA survey seeks to analyze the older population of Ireland, thus determining which factors contribute to “successful aging.” Researchers interview the study participants every two years to gather details on numerous aspects of their lives including economic (pensions, employment, living standards), health (physical, mental, service needs), and social (contact with friends and family, social involvement).

Some unexpected results

While the project is ongoing, thus far, some of the key findings from TILDA research have been rather surprising…

First, researchers discovered that seniors with a negative attitude about the process of aging had a slower walking speed and poorer cognitive abilities at their two-year interview. By contrast, older adults with a positive outlook about aging were quicker on their feet and more mentally sharp. This finding was true even after accounting for the participants’ medications, mood, life circumstances, and other health changes that had occurred over that two-year period.

>> Related: National Council on Aging–2015 United States of Aging Survey

Next, TILDA discovered a correlation between attitude and the progression of age-related conditions. For example, doctors know that older adults who are in a frail physical state are also at a higher risk for other health problems like poor cognition. Indeed, frail seniors in the study with a negative attitude about aging were shown to have worse cognition compared to participants who were not frail. And yet, study participants who were frail but maintained a positive attitude towards getting older had the same level of cognitive ability as their non-frail peers.

Reframing attitudes on aging for the greater good of seniors

This Irish research study shows that much of the concept of “aging” is in the eye of the beholder, and a good attitude goes a long way in prolonging the quality of seniors’ lives as they get older. These findings are significant for researchers, but also for the senior living industry, and society at-large. Lead TILDA researcher Dr. Deirdre Robertson noted that the way people think, talk, and write about the process of aging may have a direct correlation to the health and happiness of seniors. “Everyone will grow older, and if negative attitudes towards aging are carried throughout life, they can have a detrimental, measurable effect on mental, physical, and cognitive health,” observed Dr. Robertson.

>> Related: A Positive Aging Mindset May Slow or Even Reverse the Aging Process

Tips to maintain a sunny outlook about aging

Since a positive outlook can benefit seniors’ health and cognition, here are some simple steps you can take to encourage positivity.

  • Keep a gratitude journal: Each night at bedtime, write down three things that you are thankful for or made you happy that day.
  • Volunteer: Numerous studies have shown that seniors who give of their time and talents are happier, more sociable, and healthier.
  • Focus on the positive: When times are tough, it is easy to dwell on the negatives; try to make a conscious effort to look for the good and the humor even in difficult situations.
  • Get some fresh air: Spending time outside in the sunshine has a variety of health benefits for seniors including better cardiovascular health, better sleep, and a sunnier attitude.
  • Seek out other positive people: Just as misery loves company, happy people are naturally drawn to other cheerful people and their conversations tend to revolve around more uplifting topics.

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