Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Worried about getting older? Forget about it and be happy

Study of seniors in Oxford finds positive outlook prolongs lives

By Steve Eder,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        OXFORD — When asked how old she is, 80-year-old Vera Hatton is happy to give her age, while proclaiming that she “can't believe” how many years she's stockpiled.

[photo] Norma and Raymond Schaner, who are 75 and 81, respectively, practice throwing darts for a tournament next week at the Oxford Seniors Center.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
        She recently sent her sister-in-law a birthday card sporting the phrase, “Birthdays are like chocolate chip cookies — they make you sick when you realize how many you've had.”

        But Ms. Hatton, of Oxford, says her secret to living a long life is just the opposite, that elderly people should be proud of their longevity, not sickened by it.

        Ms. Hatton's attitude about growing older may be the reason she is still going strong, according to a report released this week by researchers at Miami University and Yale University. A 23-year-study found that those who had positive perceptions of aging lived an average 7.5 years longer than those with cloudier outlooks.

        “It's an amazing finding,” says Suzanne Kunkel, director of the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University and co-author of the report published in the August Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “We all want to know how to live longer and healthier, so this seems like good news to people.”

        The research data was extracted from 660 participants, 338 men and 322 women age 50 and older from Oxford who participated in the Ohio Longitudinal Study of Aging and Retirement. The team of scholars, including Becca Levy, Martin Slade and Stanislav Kasi of Yale, and Dr. Kunkel, compared mortality rates versus responses made 23 years earlier to questions about perceptions of aging.

        Ms. Hatton, who has six children, 11 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, took part in the survey, and says, “You shouldn't worry about doing what you can't help,” even if that includes getting older. “What's the point in being depressed?”

        Mary Ellen Smith, 87, says her “oldest daughter is 66, so I can't lie about my age.” The secret to Ms. Smith's long life is learning to laugh often, and to remain happy even when life throws curves.

    Try these tips for achieving happiness from's life coach Deborah Brown:
    • Accept that you deserve to be happy.
    • Accept yourself.
    • Be comfortable where you are, not where you'd like to be in 10 years or where you were last year.
    • Appreciate your life. If you had 90 days to live, what would you do differently? Do it now.
    • Ask for help.
    • Do something nice for someone else. Helping someone else makes your life look better in comparison.
    • Do something that will move you forward. Make a plan for a better life (more education, new job, new relationships) and put it into play.
- Peggy O'Farrell
    Want to live longer? Here's a list of tips suggested by health researchers:
    • Stop smoking.
    • Exercise. A little cardio (30 to 45 minutes five to six days a week) reduces heart disease, cancer and depression, improves sleep, keeps bones healthy and fights diabetes.
    • Lighten up. Reduce stress and look on the bright side of life.
    • Eat less.
    • Sleep more, but not too much. A study released earlier this year suggests women live longer than men because they sleep more soundly and cope better with the effects of sleep deprivation.
    • Protect your fertility. University of Utah researchers suggest that a woman's longevity might be influenced by her fertility and ovarian health. Women who had children later in life tended to live longer, possibly because their ovaries continued to function later in life or having children spurred their "'will to live.”
    • Get lucky. For middle-aged men, at least, having sex more often means living longer, according to British researchers.
    • Enjoy the wine. In 2000, based on studies that moderate alcohol consumption extends life, the USDA revised its dietary guidelines to suggest that a drink or two a day might lower heart attack risk for men 45 and older and women 55 and older.
        “There are things you've learned along the way that give you more wisdom than the younger people,” she says, adding that she has three daughters, seven grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

        The worst sign of aging, she says, is the loss of short-term memory that makes her forget people's names. But she doesn't mind because she says most of her friends are the same way.

        “You can get old just sitting in a chair, even if you are young,” says 83-year-old Chick Rumpler, who lives with his 78-year-old wife Gene, in a home situated among Miami University students. Both participated in the survey.

        Living near campus for 30 years, the neighborhood grandparents enjoy being friends with students who use the couple's basketball hoop, bake them cookies and borrow tools from their garage.

        “We get along with 'em and can't wait to welcome them back” at the end of the summer, Mr. Rumpler says. “It always seems like it has been too long” that the students are away.

        As a professor at Miami University starting in 1966, Bob Atchley helped start the gerontology center and became director in 1974. His initial research helped kick-start the project when he sent questionnaires on well-being, health and activity levels to aging community members.

        “The idea that older people would sit on the porch moping just didn't fit,” says Mr. Atchley, who left Miami in 1998 to become chair of the gerontology department at Naropa University in Boulder, Colo. “Most people had satisfying life skills, goals and tremendous friendships and relationships with family.”

        “That,” he says, “contrasts greatly with the popular perception of elderly people becoming increasingly helpless and not understanding how they could lead a happy life.”

        The study, which was conducted by Yale University's Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, took into account factors including age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness and overall health. Research conclusions said positive attitude often extends life more than not smoking, maintaining low cholesterol and blood pressure or exercising.

        Although experts caution that healthy habits are important, the study authors conclude: “Our study carries two messages. The discouraging one is that negative self-perceptions can diminish life expectancy; the encouraging one is that positive self-perceptions can prolong life expectancy.”

        Although she can't do everything she used to, 90-year-old Cecelia Gliderail, of Oxford, says that her age is “one thing I can't help. It is just the way life goes.”

        But she still drives, and her license doesn't expire until 2006. “I think I'm a pretty good driver,” she says, adding that she already plans to renew that license.


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