top of page

Successful Aging: Maintaining a positive outlook helps in recovery and good health

I am a 78-year old healthy woman facing a fourth surgery on my leg and am a bit depressed. Fortunately, I’ve recovered well from the previous three. Up until now I have been very active, hiking, traveling, dancing and continuing to work in my career. Several friends who have had recent surgeries tell me I need to get used to doing less and that’s just what I should expect given my age. Their negative outlook is distressing to me. Can you offer a little hope? T.S.

Dear T.S.

Yes, hope is on its way. Let’s look at the reality. We know with age we will experience changes at some point in time. Some might be disease related, others more mechanical such as a joint replacement. We may need more sleep and slow down a bit. Our immune system may not be as efficient. And then there are changes in our vision and hearing. Add to that the loss of muscle mass and flexibility. Many of these normal changes can be postponed with healthy lifestyles.

And part of that healthy lifestyle is our attitude. Here is what we know:

Becca Levy and colleagues from Yale found that those who are optimistic about their age and reject aging stereotypes can extend their life by 7.5 years. This powerful finding takes into account age, gender, wealth and self-reported health and loneliness. This research is based on a study of 660 men and women in Ohio who were followed for over 20 years. Levy found the years they gained from having a positive attitude was more than the years gained from low blood pressure, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and regular exercise.

In today’s world, it can be difficult to maintain a positive view of aging as we live in a youth-centric society, particularly in Southern California. On our sunny days we are surrounded by sleek bodies in their beach, running and biking attire. In addition to our culture, preferences for youth over older age are evident in employment, movies, the advertising industry, marketing and more. But the times are slowly changing.

A recent New York Times story (January 9, 2019) headlined “Older and in Power, Unwilling to Remain Unseen” referred to four older women in positions of power: Susan Zirinksy at 66 will take over CBS News in March and is the first woman to do so. Then there is Nancy Pelosi who at 78 was re-elected to be Speaker of the House of Representatives. Representative Maxine Waters at 79 will lead the Financial Services Committee. And Glenn Close at 71 beat out four younger women to win the Golden Globe award for best actress.

Yes, these all are women, which makes their position noteworthy because in general age works against women a little bit more than it does for men. You’ve heard the expression – gray hair on a man is distinguished; on a woman it’s old age. Additionally, women confront two biases: age and gender.

Let’s continue to look at reality. Those who have an illness, particularly chronic ones, may have a hard time being optimistic. Illness is scary, forcing people to deal with uncertainty, lack of control and turning themselves over to doctors. For many there is a realization their life is finite. Being positive all of the time may be unrealistic.

Older adults are resilient. They have lived through wars, divorces, losing a job, relocating, financial concerns, illness and then spring back. Jonathan Rauch, author of “The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50” writes that older people feel less stress and regret; they dwell less on negative information and are better able to regulate their emotions. As a result, older adults are reported to be happier in their later years. Clearly difficult events continue to occur; it’s their response to the events that changes over time.

Although I am in no position to judge your current situation, it sounds as though your problem is likely fixable, given you have recovered well from your previous leg surgeries. Yet there is always uncertainty.

There is hope. Your ongoing positive outlook and resilience should serve you well. As to your friends, you might mention that everyone is a case of one – and in your case you are planning for a full recovery and resuming your active life. I feel confident that you will do everything possible to make that happen.

bottom of page