By Victor S. Sierpina

For many years, I have cited Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, the sage of the power of positive thinking, regarding aging. He once said, “Age does not of itself bring degeneration and disability. Rather it is the belief that this is so that brings them about.”

I learned this truth as a young doctor and shared it with patients for many years, wondering if I would still believe it when I was older myself. In fact, in my observations of older adults over the years, I have found that attitudes about aging and health are closely tied to quality of life and emotional and physical health. Someone using each ache and pain to validate aging and senescence is one who likely is going to age faster. Those who, with good humor and cheer, enjoy the fruits of maturity, stay active physically, socially and intellectually engaged, and shrug off minor discomforts and persevere in the face of chronic conditions age more slowly.

My patients who are vibrant, vital, intellectually intact, and physically active are often those who have maintained a positive attitude throughout their lives. They avoid the demolition derby of media and popular thought which gravitates to the negative. Instead they affirm health, wellness, success, prosperity and are “possibilitarians” in our society. They see, seek and seize positive opportunities and options around every corner.

Several nonagenarians (people over 90) in my practice regularly stun medical students and residents with their resilience, their physical prowess, cognitive capacities and even their sexual vigor.

Recent research from Yale verifies Dr. Peale’s statements about how beliefs and attitudes affect longevity. Those with negative stereotypes of aging live on average 7.5 years less than those with a more wholesome and realistic view of aging according to research by Professor Becca Levy from the Yale School of Public Health dispelling the notion that aging is merely a physiological process. In fact, echoing Dr. Peale, she says, “beliefs about aging, which are taken from the culture, have an impact.”

Those with negative outlooks about aging are less likely to follow sensible lifestyle recommendations on exercise, diet and taking medications.

A survey of adults over 65 concluded they are not declining, but thriving. Her studies showed that they are doing better in social, financial, community and physical dimensions of life than younger adults taking the same survey.

There are steps you can take to reduce the impact of aging. Exercise, for example, can increase satisfaction with aging, alertness and attitude. Becoming aware of negative stereotypes in our society and substituting them with positives is another useful strategy. While it is politically incorrect to disparage someone on the basis of gender, race or religion, subtle and not so subtle ageism comments, jokes and assumptions are commonly accepted.

Accepting, not denying, the realities of aging is a marker of wisdom. Life contains both good and bad experiences, no matter our age.

I close with another quote from Norman Vincent Peale:

“Live your life and forget your age.”

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.