December 10, 2015

Learn why optimistic seniors might avoid trips to the doctor’s office.

Seniors who ascribe to the “glass half full” mentality are not only happier but also possibly healthier, according to a recent study.

Researchers used data from the Health and Retirement Study to examine optimism in nearly 10,000 older adults before and after a four-year period. The study noted two things. First, we tend to grow more optimistic as we age until we reach 68 (then we change our tune). Second, looking on the bright side may lead to fewer chronic illnesses and overall better health.

“If someone is not a natural-born optimist, it may well be important to adopt a positive outlook,” says James S. Powers, M.D., AGSF, an associate professor of medicine in the Vanderbilt Center for Quality Aging.

Seniors are the fastest-growing demographic in Tennessee. In 2012, approximately 19 percent of Tennessee residents were older than 60, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2030 though, that number’s expected to jump to 24 percent.

What happens at 68?

The perceived, unofficial mark of old age is 68, according to what the the average respondent said in an unrelated Pew Research Center study. Also, as health, social circles and wealth decline, seniors may lower expectations and think about their mortality. Retirement, which should be fun and relaxing, could even add to the doom and gloom. Loss of feelings of career success might leave a retiree feeling useless and lonely. 

Why is the sunnier side the healthier side?

Research shows that optimists develop tools for stronger health throughout their lives. They tend to educate themselves about health risks and engage in more preventive measures like exercising and eating healthy. They set goals and meet them, too, or reassess plans when necessary. Positive people also often have good support networks and better coping strategies, both of which can help them when things don’t go well.

How do I accentuate the positive if I am sick?

“Even if one has a chronic illness, think about the activities and pleasures that one does enjoy,” Powers says, “and seek to maintain independence at the highest level of function. Accept help willingly in order to achieve these goals. Share your goals with close family members and your provider.”


Are you concerned about an aging loved one? Learn how to talk to them about their health with more tips from James S. Powers, M.D.