How to slow down ageing: Focus on loving your life
Having an optimistic attitude towards life in your later years can dramatically enhance your chances of living to enjoy more of it. That's the startling conclusion of Dutch research based on nearly 1,000 people aged 65 to 85.
Always look on the bright side
Nine years after the study, participants in the 1991 Arnhem Elderly Study with the highest levels of optimism had almost halved their risk of dying compared with those with the highest levels of pessimism.
Overall mortality among the optimists was only 55 per cent that of the most pessimistic group.
Their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease was only 23 per cent in comparison, even taking account of existing disease and major risk factors such as body mass index, hypertension and total cholesterol level.
Optimism has a protective effect against mortality in old age, the researchers concluded.
Loving your life is a lifesaver
Scientists have found that an optimistic attitude does more than put a smile on your face.
Studies show that it cuts your risk of getting sick when exposed to the common cold virus, reduces your odds of developing heart disease by 50 percent, and increases the likelihood that you'll recover from a heart attack, live longer after a cancer diagnosis and even have fewer everyday health complaints such as upset tummies and breathing problems.
Staying happy and feeling in control in the face of life's challenges builds what experts call ‘stress resiliency’.
Without this near-magical force field, your mind and body can become steeped in stress hormones, leading to depression and anxiety; it can even make conditions such as glaucoma, rosacea and diabetes worse.
How can you get there?
One key element is an ability to enjoy the moment. “The factors that made later life satisfying included the capacity to enjoy life for its own sake, and finding meaning and purpose,” notes George Valliant, MD, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist.
Play is not an easy skill for a grown-up to master. “We're wired from age 20 until age 65 to do things that other people will find valuable—that's how we get paid and how we get our own sense of worth,” says Dr Valliant. He holds up Winston Churchill as a good example of someone who knew how to trade in drive and ambition in favour of fun at retirement.
“Churchill was always looking for other people's esteem. He wrote beautifully and won a Nobel Prize for literature,” he says. “But as soon as he retired, he stopped writing and took up watercolours. It was simply something he enjoyed for himself.”
Churchill enjoying painting. Image via Pundit From Another Planet
Enjoying the moment releases endorphins that create a feeling of joy and euphoria, lowers stress hormones, relaxes muscles and stabilises breathing patterns. Scientists have shown that watching a funny film improves blood flow to a similar extent as exercise—indeed, a really good laughing session can increase calorie burn-off by about 20 percent.
Psychologist Robert Holden, Director of the Happiness Project in Chertsey, Surrey, likens the effect to “a high-impact internal aerobic work-out”.
Regular laughter—some doctors advise 15 minutes a day—has been shown to help people to cope better with pain, fight infection, speed up the healing process and improve general health.
Focusing on the good really does make everything seem better
Psychologists asked 192 students to make weekly lists for 10 weeks of five events they had experienced that week. One group was asked to list things they were grateful for, another group was told to focus on daily hassles, and the third group was given no instructions.
All were also asked to rate their moods, reactions to others, time spent exercising, physical symptoms and general feelings about life.
When the results were analysed, people in the ‘grateful’ group viewed their lives more positively, were more optimistic about the future, responded to help from others with more joy and had fewer physical symptoms than the others.
Stress is one of the biggest barriers to happiness, and many studies have shown that long-term stress has detrimental effects on immunity, the nervous system and hormonal balance.
It has an adverse influence on other health-related forms of behaviour, such as exercise, eating, smoking and drinking, and can promote depression, memory loss and even some physical diseases, including diabetes mellitus and heart disease, the UK's biggest killer.
"As he retired, Churchill stopped writing and took up watercolours. It was simply something he enjoyed for himself.”
A major UK study following the health of civil servants since the 1960s reported in 2008 that consistently high levels of stress damage the heart. The research, part of the Whitehall II study, looked at more than 10,300 civil servants and found a 68 percent higher risk of heart disease in those with chronic stress.
Dr Tarani Chandola, lead author of the study, says, “The body is designed to deal with stressful situations, but the important thing is that it returns to baseline levels as soon as possible because of the damage stress hormones can do over a long period of time.”
So make sure that you reserve some time just for you at least once a week and preferably every day. It doesn't matter what you do, jogging, meditation, an art class or gardening, as long as it enables you to forget your troubles.
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