We’ve all heard about the placebo effect – and possibly about its less known opposite, the “nocebo” effect – but do we fully realise the wider-reaching implications of these concepts? A study published in December 2020* provides more evidence that the perceptions and expectations we have of ourselves affect our health, quality of life, and ultimately, our lifespan.
The power of the imagination is one of my hobby horses, and one I keep harping on about. This is not some airy-fairy, new-agey construct; it’s well-documented science: you can think yourself well, or you can think yourself poorly. You can harness your expectations to stay fit and active, preserve your cognitive skills, and live longer – or you can assume you’ll decline and slow down, and turn it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. One of the authors of the study, Prof. Karen Hooker, reminds us that “Previous research has shown that people who have positive views of aging at 50 live 7.5 years longer, on average, than people who don't.”
To put that extra 7.5 years in perspective, and show you just how extraordinary it is, let’s compare it with the benefits of regular exercise: according to the findings of a 2012 study (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001335), doing the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week affords us approximately 3.4 extra years of life. That’s not even half the benefit of cultivating a positive attitude to aging!
So, what do you need to do to reap the rewards of positive thinking? In the words of the study’s co-author Shelbie Turner, “How we think about who we're going to be in old age is very predictive of exactly how we will be.” It’s worth examining your ideas about old age, then: do you assume that older people inevitably experience memory loss, for example? Or that they lose the ability to drive, or walk long distances – or even just that they become sullen and grumpy?
Of course, ill health can and does hit us independently of our thoughts and expectations, too – and yet, cultivating a positive outlook about our own aging seems to be one of the most effective tools we have at our disposal, on our journey towards becoming the energetic, vibrant, zestful older people we all want to grow into.
*You can read the study here: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0091415020981883