Do you feel old? It Could Age You | Health info

By Amy Norton HealthDay Reporter

(Health Day)

TUESDAY, Jan. 18, 2022 (HealthDay News) — People who believe their bodies and minds will crumble as they age may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to a recent study.

The researchers found that older people with a dim view of aging tended to report more physical health symptoms on days when they were stressed than on less stressful days.

In contrast, people with more of a “golden age” outlook seemed to have some protection against everyday stress: They actually reported fewer health problems on days when they felt more stressed than usual.

“We know there’s a strong relationship between perceived stress and physical health,” lead researcher Dakota Witzel, a doctoral candidate at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences, told Corvallis.

Numerous studies have shown that when people usually feel stressed, they can eat poorly, skip exercise, and have long-term consequences like high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart disease.

But the new findings, Witzel said, suggest that a more positive view of aging may be a buffer against the physical effects of everyday stress.

That’s not to say people are responsible for their physical symptoms, she noted, or that anyone should ignore the symptoms with a smile.

But people need to be aware that their perceptions of the aging process can affect how they feel, and “reframe” that story if necessary, according to Witzel.

The results — recently published in the Gerontology Journals Series B: Psychological Sciences — are based on 105 Oregonians between the ages of 52 and 88. For 100 days, they completed daily surveys of their stress levels and a range of physical symptoms – such as fatigue, aches and pains, shortness of breath and stomach aches.

At baseline, participants completed a standard questionnaire on attitudes toward aging. He asked them if they agreed with statements such as “The older you get, the more useful you are”.

On average, the study found that people tended to report more physical symptoms on days when their perceived stress was higher than their personal norm.

However, this link turned out to depend on whether people had a positive or negative view of aging: if it was the “glass half empty,” high-stress days led to more physical symptoms. This was not the case for people with a more positive view of aging.

What shapes a person’s perception of aging? According to Witzel, throughout life, people “internalize” media messages as well as the people in their lives, consciously or not.

If your parents or grandparents remained optimistic and vibrant as they got older, your ideas about aging are likely different from those of someone whose older parents were riddled with health issues or complained about growing old.

But attitudes toward aging likely also reflect a person’s general disposition, according to James Maddux, senior fellow at the Center for Advancing Wellness at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

“It seems like it’s really aligned with optimism versus pessimism,” said Maddux, who reviewed the results.

In other words, whether you “dread” or “celebrate” aging probably has a lot to do with how you view life in general. People who see the glass as half full and have a sense of self-efficacy, Maddux said, are less likely to “catastrophize” physical symptoms and instead see them as manageable.

He noted that the study captured people’s subjective responses – their perceived stress and whether they were experiencing symptoms. And pessimistic people may be especially likely to feel stressed and be “hypervigilant” for physical symptoms.

It is therefore not necessarily the case that a bad attitude towards aging is a cause of stress and symptoms in older people. Instead, these tendencies likely coexist in the same person, according to Maddux.

“It’s like a circle, so there’s no starting point,” he said.

But that’s good news, Maddux noted: “It means there are more places to step in.”

You can’t just tell people “to be optimistic,” he said. But research shows that people can, for example, learn to interpret physical symptoms differently – to refrain from the habit of catastrophizing.

Body pain is not just a physical experience. And it’s important, Maddux said, to be aware that our mental states affect our perceptions of and responses to pain.

“The pain you feel is a signal from your brain,” he noted.

Maddux also encouraged people of all ages to recognize the link between pain and sedentary behavior. Making physical activity a lifelong habit can be a boon to physical and mental health.

The American Psychological Association has more on pain management.

SOURCES: Dakota Witzel, MS, doctoral candidate, undergraduate lecturer, College of Public Health and Human Sciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon; James Maddux, PhD, Principal Investigator, Center for Advancing Wellness, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia; Gerontology Journals Series B: Psychological Sciences, January 10, 2021

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