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Having a positive attitude toward aging can add years to your life


Q. I frequently surprise people when I tell them I am 92 years old. They ask me to what I attribute my longevity and I answer, “Genetics and attitude.” I suggest that attitude would be a major area to explore in your column. S.M.

Indeed, attitude counts! There is significant research that supports the importance of attitude towards aging and its role in how long and how well we live. 

But let’s first look at the other part of your answer: genetics. It is estimated that only about 25 percent of the variation in human life span is determined by genetics. It’s our lifestyle, the non-genetic differences between us, that often explains why one person has a longer life than another.

At the same time, we know that exceptional longevity runs strongly in families. It’s an indication that genes play a significant role among the oldest old, according to the renowned New England Centenarian studies

Becca Levy, professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, has done seminal work on the role of attitude towards aging and its impact on longevity and was quoted about it in the New York Post in 2022

“In study after study I conducted, I found that older people with more positive perceptions of aging performed better physically and cognitively than those with more negative perceptions,” said Levy. “They were more likely to recover from severe disability, they remembered better, they walked faster, and they even lived longer.” 

In her book “Breaking the Age Code: How Your Beliefs about Aging Determine How Long and Well You Live,” Levy makes a compelling case for adopting a positive mindset to aging that can add nearly eight years to one’s life.” In a study of over 600 inhabitants in the small town of Oxford, Ohio, she found that the way that people thought about and approached the idea of old age was the single most important factor in determining longevity. It was more important than gender, income, social background, loneliness or functional health.

Furthermore, her research found that health problems such as memory loss, hearing decline and cardiovascular events that have been thought to be entirely due to aging were influenced by negative beliefs. Overall, positive age beliefs led to better health and even longer life – 7.5 years on average, according to Levy. 

A fundamental question is why do we even harbor negative stereotypes and beliefs about aging? When Levy began conducting her decades-long research on the psychology of aging, she would routinely ask people to think of five words to describe an older person. In the US, the most common answer was “memory loss.” In China, it was “wisdom.” We have a cultural bias towards youth as reflected in entertainment, work environments, social media, the press and even healthcare. 

Levy provides a personal anecdote about how age stereotypes can affect one’s confidence and competence and even create a self-fulfilling prophecy. She accompanied her grandmother, a competitive golfer, avid walker and New Yorker to the grocery store. Her grandmother tripped and got a bloody gash on her leg when she connected with a wooden crate. On her way out, she confronted the owner, “You shouldn’t leave crates in the middle of your store.” The owner, per Levy, replied, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t be walking around. It’s not my fault older people fall down all the time. So, don’t go around blaming me.”

Levy thought that was the end of the story. It was not. That same afternoon her grandmother asked Levy to water an avocado tree that she typically did herself. Then, the following day, her grandmother asked Levy to drive, indicating she didn’t trust herself to do so. After the interaction at the store, Levy’s grandmother had started questioning her competency in a way she never had before. The gash on her leg was not the issue. 

So Levy raises the point: If a few negative words could affect someone as strong and spunky as her grandmother, what were age stereotypes doing to us as a country? Levy and a colleague conducted a survey that placed the cost of ageism in this country at $63 billion a year in healthcare costs. 

We each have the choice and power to adopt a positive attitude toward our own aging. This may take some education, practice and heightened sensitivity to negative messages. Being around positive folks also helps. Remember, age beliefs have power; they can steal or add 7.5 years to our lives.

Thank you, S.M., for your important suggestion. So, keep positive everyone, live long and well and know kindness changes everything. 

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at Visit Helen at and follow her on


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