Senior Health: Longevity Explained

May 17th, 2011 | By Sharon Shaw Elrod MSW EdD | Category: Lifestyle, Health & Fitness

A new specialty began to emerge in Social Work and Medicine about 30-40 years ago.  Social workers and physicians realized the numbers of senior citizens would only increase as years go by, and the specialty of Gerontology came upon university curricula.  Gerontologists are helping specialists who focus only on senior citizens, their social issues and health concerns.  One such specialist recently reported one of the ingredients to a long and healthy old age is resilience, the ability to bounce back, regroup and move forward after setbacks of all kinds.

Dr Mark Lachs says this about an octogenarian patient of his:  “…(she) likes chocolate truffles. Her favorite beverage is Budweiser. And she once announced to me that she was thinking about smoking again. When I protested, she reminded me that she has outlived several other physicians and told me to mind my own business.”

Besides genetics, which we cannot discount when it comes to longevity, geriatric specialists tell us people who live longer have something called ‘adaptive competence’.  The proverbial half-filled or half-empty glass of water paints the picture rather graphically.  Some of us seniors look at life from the point of view of a glass half-empty; and others (who may live longer and happier lives) look at life from the half-filled position. 

Dr. Mark Lachs, Director of Geriatrics for the New York Presbyterian Health Care System and Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College defines it like this:

“I define it loosely as the ability to bounce back from stress. Many scientists view this solely as biological stress. But many of us who care for older patients see adaptive competence as psychologically critical as well.  You don’t get to be 109 without life hurling a few curveballs at you, and (she) has had more than her share: bereavement, gender discrimination, medical issues. And after each, she dusts herself off and moves on.

A few years back, she had a modest stroke that affected her language abilities. I don’t think I’ve seen a patient of any age tackle rehabilitation and speech therapy the way she did.

During her last visit, she asked if I would consider taking on a new patient: Her 103-year-old brother, who goes to the office nearly every day. He is another adaptively competent centenarian.”

Listen to the differences among seniors as they talk about their lives and those of their friends.  Statements like, ”Life is just going to hell in a hand-basket,” and “I can’t do much…” and “Old people should just be thrown away” suggest the half-empty glass of water, the mindset that is negative and keeps elders mired in themselves and their gloomy outlook on life.  Becca Levy, professor at Yale School of Public Health in epidemiology and psychology, studied the longevity of people in their 50s as a function of their perceptions about aging.  After controlling for their medical conditions, subjects who held negative ideas like those listed above died 7.5 years sooner (average) than their positively-oriented counterparts. 

So if your family and friends comment on your generally negative position about life, make some changes if you want to live longer.



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