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Empirical evidence seems to substantiate a general observation that individuals who are upbeat and sunny also appear to be healthy and actively engaged in good things. Longitudinal studies – particularly of seniors – generally back up the empirical observations. Numerous studies have followed cohorts of US seniors over the years and surveyed attitude and health. In general, the better the attitude the better the health and the longer the life.
These studies, however, must be carefully designed. There can be anomalies in this assumption that attitude affects our health, quality of life and longevity. This is particularly true when a major life change occurs such as retirement. Some individuals hate their jobs, and their attitude is not good. Retirement brings an opportunity for new challenges and possibly a different career. For these people, there is generally an improvement in health, quality of life and longevity.
For others, retirement or the death of a spouse may bring on an unfavorable attitude towards life. Depression may set in, and quality of life, health and longevity suffer as a result. Even without depression, a lack of zest for life will have negative impact for the future.
There is some evidence that people who are highly religious or who attend church services regularly or who pray regularly seem to do better with the aging process. A gerontology study done in 1999 examined almost 4,000 North Carolina residents who were ages 64 to 101. This six-year study examined the incidence of death and how it correlated to attending church services. Findings were that people who attended religious services at least once a week were 46% less likely to die during this six-year period of the study.
Other studies that have been done reveal that people who attend religious services or who feel that they are spiritual, experience less depression and anxiety, have better health such as lower blood pressure and fewer strokes and these people say that they are more healthy.
It's not known whether the actual state of mind produces a better aging process or whether being religious results in a healthier lifestyle. Or perhaps it is that certain personality types are those who attend services regularly and those personality types handle aging better. This then brings up the question of whether someone later in life can "get religion" and improve the aging process. More studies are needed to determine whether religion and spirituality are a personality or lifestyle trait that results in healthy aging or whether a religious state of mind produces better aging, regardless of the psychological makeup of the person who is considered religious.
Research has found that feeling happy or optimistic about life can lessen the burden of chronic pain and possibly reduce the chances of developing cardiovascular disease. A study done by the Mayo Clinic followed a selected group over 30 years. The study found that those individuals in the group who were determined to be "optimistic" on a standard personality test had a death rate that was 80% of those whom the test determined to be "pessimistic."
Staying positive also reduces the risk of developing prolonged depression in later years. Depression has been found to be associated with dementia or Alzheimer's disease. Depression has other effects on aging seniors as well. A depressed state often results in poor nutrition, lack of exercise and lack of mental stimulation through socialization with others.
All of these have a debilitating effect on health, on the possibility of developing cancer or cardiovascular disease and possibly accelerate the risk of developing some sort of dementia. All the issues related to the aging process are interrelated with each other. For example, exercise improves mood and makes a person feel more positive which then leads to better health. Or as another example, reducing stress can lead to a more positive attitude which again leads to better health and longevity. The beauty of understanding this interrelatedness is that even though there are several different negative influences that affect the aging process, attacking them one at a time will also mitigate the effect of some or all the other negative influences. It's a synergistic effect that allows one to improve prospects without having to address all the negative influences at the same time.
As discussed previously, retirement can have either a positive or a negative effect on the aging process. The individual who has struggled for years hating his or her job and is looking forward to retirement has the opportunity at retirement to develop a better attitude – a more positive attitude – which could have a positive effect on future health and longevity. There is however a major caveat. If the person is going into retirement without adequate retirement income and without a plan to engage in productive postretirement activities, attitude will change temporarily and positively for a few years, but lack of stimulus and lack of income to do anything will eventually result in a negative attitude, possible depression, and an acceleration of the aging process. Despite the sometimes-positive aspect of retirement discussed above, generally, retirement has a negative impact on aging. A new report from the Institute of Economic Affairs reveals that at retirement there is an initial boost in health, but after a certain period the retiree has an increased 40% risk of developing depression as compared with pre-retirement. In addition, the report indicates that the risk for developing a physical health condition is increased by 60% after retirement. The report goes on that self-reported excellent or very good health decreases by 40% in retirement and the risk for needing medication for a diagnosed physical condition increases by 60%. Based on this study, the researchers suggest that potential retirees should seriously consider postponing their retirement. Retirement is not much different from losing a job in that many individuals struggle with a loss of identity and structure. Those who retire must replace that daily challenge of going to work and being productive with something else that provides fulfillment. Otherwise, negative outlook, depression, lethargy, poor health, and other factors that increase the aging process will come into play and result in a poor quality of life for the future of the retiree. Another factor to consider is the relationship with the spouse. During working years, spouses spend more time with their jobs and less time together. Retirement reverses that relationship. Being underfoot constantly – especially with a man – irritates and exasperates the other spouse (the woman) and can lead to relationship problems. It is not surprising, that the divorce rate among individuals over age 65 is quite high. For many individuals approaching retirement years, a bad economy and lack of savings are forcing a decision to delay retirement. More than 4 in 5 older Americans expect to keep working during their later years, a sign that traditional retirement is out of reach for vast swaths of society, according to a new survey. Among Americans ages 50 and older who currently have jobs, 82% expect to work in some form during retirement, according to the poll by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. In other words, "retirement" is increasingly becoming a misnomer. However, this decision to delay retirement is not entirely dependent upon the need to keep working. Many older individuals simply do not want to move to a phase in their life where they have no challenge and nothing to look forward to. For these people, there is no such thing as retirement in the sense of losing current employment and doing nothing but playing golf, watching TV or traveling. These people do not look forward to such a life. Many of these people will quit their current employment but will seek out other challenging employment or self-employment opportunities simply because they want to continue to remain engaged. The days of retiring at the age of 65 are over for many. In fact, a report by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies found that 56 percent of Americans expect to work past age 65 or do not plan to retire at all. Further, most workers – 54 percent – plan to work even after they retire from their current employment. The truth is many people are now embracing their older years as some of the most fulfilling of their lives. Reaching age 65 no longer means that it's time to retire to your home and deal with aches and pains, forgetfulness, and loneliness; instead, for many, this is a time for new beginnings. Given this new attitude towards retirement, it is possible for many people to see an improvement in health as they grow older. New challenges, a more positive attitude and the desire to live a healthier life could actually improve the aging process and increase longevity.