With stress down and happiness up, old age can be the time of your life


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June 24, 2013

Concerned about getting older? There might be fewer reasons to fret. ¶ Older people do experience changes and losses, such as retiring from a job, bidding old friends good-bye and seeing some cognitive skills decline. But the later years also offer some relief from stress. And rates of depression actually go down after age 60, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you take the right steps, old age can rank among the best years of your life. Here are five ways you get better with age.

Anger, stress and worry are less common. People in their 70s and 80s report being less troubled by those negative emotions than people in any other age group, according to a telephone survey of more than 340,000 people published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2010. Also, happiness and well-being grow in the later years, says the lead researcher, Arthur Stone, a professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stony Brook University in New York.

What you can do: Try to allow a more positive outlook on life to emerge. Focus on daily activities that are beneficial and that you enjoy. Let go of negative feelings by pursuing activities that foster mindful awareness, such as meditation, yoga and stretching.

Wisdom grows. There’s evidence that people are wiser in their old age.

In one study, researchers at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Texas at Dallas asked 247 people ages 25 to 93 to pass judgment on the outcomes of fictional reports of political disputes. Experts then blindly graded their answers on such wisdom-related dimensions as the ability to see other points of view, the likelihood of change, the many ways a conflict might unfold, the uncertainty and the limits of knowledge, and the possibilities for conflict resolution and compromise.

A year later, 200 people from the initial group were retested, this time by being asked to resolve conflicts described in authentic letters to the advice columnist Dear Abby. Again, experts blindly graded their judgments.

Compared with the entire group, significantly moreolder people ranked in the top 20 percent on wisdom performance, according to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And people with an average age of 65 outperformed younger participants.

The brain clings to its experience-based knowledge well into old age, other research suggests. That’s one reason wisdom doesn’t seem to decline as do some other cognitive capabilities, notably some measures of memory and processing new information.

What you can do: Staying mentally and physically active may help keep the mind sharp and protect the brain from atrophy. Pursue some of the attributes of wise individuals, such as being open to new experiences and perspectives, and cultivating social relationships.

Marriages get healthier. Married seniors report greater satisfaction and more positive experiences with their mates than younger married couples do, even when they quarrel, according to a study published in 2011 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. One reason may be that appreciation increases as people grow older and begin to acknowledge their own mortality.

What you can do: Take a cue from happily married seniors: Try to work out conflicts with affection. Express positive rather than negative emotions.

Satisfaction with social relationships grows. Seniors typically have a smaller but closer circle of friends than younger adults, research shows. That’s because older people tend to focus on close friends and family members who are important for their emotional bonds.

Social connectedness helps seniors stay healthy. A new study suggests that seniors who volunteer — whether lending a hand to friends and neighbors or doing community work — also reap cognitive health benefits. A three-year study led by researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland looked at the health and the altruistic attitudes and deeds of 1,000 people age 72 or older at a Florida retirement community. They found that volunteering was the most consistent predictor of cognitive well-being.

What you can do: Maintain social contact by planning your day to include others. Send e-mail to friends and family. Explore recreational and travel opportunities through senior centers. Reach out by being a volunteer, even if it’s simply to phone a person in need each day, recommend researchers at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Aging and Population Health.

Happiness increases. Feelings of emotional well-being may not only improve your quality of life but also add years to it. Researchers at Stanford University and elsewhere assessed the emotional health of 184 people age 18 to 94 for 10 years. During three stages of data collection, the participants reported their emotional state at five randomly selected times each day for a week. Those who experienced more positive than negative emotions in everyday life were more likely to have survived over a 13-year period, according to the report, published in Psychology and Aging in 2011.

What you can do: Develop new interests and indulge in small pleasures. Increased participation in leisure and physical activities may result in more positive emotions and protect your mental well-being.

Copyright 2013. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.

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