Older People with Positive Aging Outlook More Likely to Recover from Disability


Older people who embrace positive stereotypes about aging are more likely than those who hold negative stereotypes to recover after suffering from disability. In a study of about 600 seniors conducted at Yale University, a rigorous measure of full recovery after the onset of a severe disability was almost eight percent higher among older adults with a positive attitude about aging — compared to peers with a more negative outlook. A rigorous measure of full recovery from a severe to a mild disability also was significantly higher among older adults with a positive attitude about aging.

Although other demographic variables such as age, gender, race, education and depression were assessed, the study’s four authors found how participants answered a straightforward question (‘When you think of old persons, what are the first five words or phrases that come to mind’) best predicted full recovery or a reduction of disabilities from severe to mild. The association between positive age stereotypes and recovery from disability in older persons has not been previously studied. The findings suggest that interventions to promote positive age stereotypes could extend independent living later in life.

Does seeing the glass half full mean you will be healthier later in life? A growing body of evidence suggests that positive thinking does correlate with less illness and longer lives. And, if you’re already older, having a positive outlook appears to be especially important.


Participants included 598 people who were at least 70 years old — the average age was 79 — and free of disability at the start of the study. The participants were interviewed monthly for up to 129 months and were told to complete home-based assessments every 18 months over 10 years.

Researchers established age stereotypes by asking participants for five terms or phrases they associated with older people and then graphing those descriptions on a five-point scale with 1 being most negative (such as decrepit) and 5 being most positive . Recovery from disability in the new study was equated with being able to perform four routine activities: bathing, dressing, moving from a chair and walking. Doing well in these things is associated with longer life expectancy and lower use of healthcare facilities.

In the study, researchers periodically surveyed 598 people aged 70 or older about their views on aging over a period of about 11 years.

None were disabled when the study started, but later on, all of them had at least one month when they needed help with daily tasks such as bathing, dressing, or walking. In some cases, their disability was severe; other cases were mild.

They were asked for the first five words or phrases that come to mind when they think of old people. The researchers rated their responses on a five-point scale as most positive, like “spry,” or most negative, like “decrepit.”

Researchers say the next step is to look at how people can upgrade their attitudes about aging.

“We need to emphasize some of the positive as we get older instead of focusing on the developmental losses that may happen with aging,” Stewart says.


The researchers established age stereotypes by asking participants for five terms or phrases they associated with older individuals and coding those descriptors on a five-point scale, with 1 being most negative (such as decrepit) and 5 being most positive (such as spry). The participants scored a mean 2.12 on this scale.

Participants’ severity of disability was based on the number of activities of daily living compromised by disability, including bathing, dressing, transferring, and walking. Three or four compromised activities were considered severely disabled; mild to severe disability required assistance with one to two activities, and mild to no disability required no assistance with activities of daily life.

In general, studies show that people who maintain a positive attitude tend to make healthier lifestyle choices. According to a Mayo Clinic study, people with a positive attitude get more physical activity, follow a healthier diet and have lower rates of smoking and alcohol consumption.

Attitude is everything. You’re only as old as you feel. There are tons of old adages designed to communicate the same basic principle: Your emotional state has a huge impact on your physical health. Now, research is showing that older people are heavily affected by their own thoughts and attitudes.

Specifically, the way we feel about the concept of aging based on old stereotypes which may have been instilled during childhood can affect the way you age. If you believe aging is a negative process, that your life won’t be fulfilling when you’re older or that you’ll become useless and helpless, you’re more likely to develop illnesses associated with aging and may die sooner than your peers who have a positive outlook on the aging process.