Maintaining a positive attitude about aging makes older adults more resilient when faced with stressful situations, a new university study shows.
“There has been a lot of research on how older adults respond to stress, but the findings have been mixed: some studies have found that older adults are less resilient than younger adults at responding to stress; some have found that they’re more resilient; and some have found no difference,” said Jennifer Bellingtier, a Ph.D. student at North Carolina State University, which helped fund the work. Bellingtier is the lead author of a paper describing the work, “Negative aging attitudes predict greater reactivity to daily stressors in older adults.” It was published Aug. 3 in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.
“We wanted to see whether attitudes toward aging could account for this disparity in research findings. In other words, are older adults with positive attitudes about aging more resilient than older adults with negative attitudes?”
Her team found the answer to be yes.
For the study, researchers had 43 adults between the ages of 60 and 96 fill out a daily questionnaire for eight consecutive days. At the beginning of the study, participants were asked about their attitudes toward aging. For example, participants were asked if they felt they were as useful now as they had been when they were younger and whether they were as happy as when they were younger.
The daily questionnaire asked participants about any stress they’d experienced that day, as well as the extent to which they experienced negative emotions such as fear, irritability or distress.
The researchers also accounted for the personality of study participants. Were they optimistic and upbeat about everything or are there benefits tied specifically to an individual’s attitudes about aging?
“We found that people in the study who had more positive attitudes toward aging were more resilient in response to stress – meaning that there wasn’t a significant increase in negative emotions,” Bellingtier said. “Meanwhile, study participants with more negative attitudes toward aging showed a sharp increase in negative emotional affect on stressful days.”
“This tells us that the way we think about aging has very real consequences for how we respond to difficult situations when we’re older,” said Shevaun Neupert, an associate professor of psychology at North Carolina State and senior author on the paper.