A key to longer life: People live 13 years longer if they perceive aging as a process of development. Researchers at Greifswald University Medicine were able to show that people who associate aging with personal goals and plans can expect to live far longer.
Prolonging life: A dream of mankind whose fulfillment is promised alternately by biological research, nutritional medicine or anti-aging medicine.
In this context, psychosocial factors are often neglected, although their enormous potential has been known for decades. Two researchers from Greifswald University Medicine, Prof. Susanne Wurm and Dr. Sarah Schäfer, have now come to the conclusion in the international "Journal of Personality and Social Psychology" that our views of aging can lead to a 13-year difference in life expectancy. In 1996, 2,400 participants in the German Ageing Survey, then aged between 40 and 85, were asked about their views on aging. Over the following 23 years documentation was made of who died and when, with a total of 871 people deceased.
"We already knew from a study published 2002 by B. R. Levy examining 660 people in the U.S. also over 23 years that people with a positive view on aging lived 7 years longer. Our study now provides evidence on a larger scale for Germany that people who perceive aging as a process of development live as much as 13 years longer," says Professor Susanne Wurm. She heads the Department of Prevention Research and Social Medicine at the Institute of Community Medicine at Greifswald University Medicine. A renowned researcher on aging, she has been studying the role of views on aging (perceptions of aging and old age) on health and longevity for many years.
Population aging worldwide is growing at an unprecedented pace and intensity. This demographic change will affect nearly every aspect of society. The World Health Organization has therefore proclaimed the years 2021 to 2030 as the Decade of Healthy Aging and set the goal of questioning perceptions of age and reducing ageism.
In contrast to the earlier study, the present study did not restrict itself to examining the effect of positive views on aging on longevity in general terms. Instead the present study differentiated between different views on aging that people have regarding specific domains of life. This made it possible to compare which of these views are significant for a long life.
"Many people do not view aging solely in positive or negative terms. In fact, they distinguish between different life domains. We have now been able to show for the first time that people who associate aging with personal development, that is, who want to realize many ideas and plans and continue to learn new things, do live longer. What is remarkable is that whether or not people associate aging with physical or social losses is comparatively irrelevant” says Susanne Wurm. And her co-author, Dr. Sarah Schäfer, adds, "We know from many other studies which psychological and health-related factors contribute to longevity. We included these in our study to make sure that views on aging can explain longevity beyond factors that are already known. And this is indeed the case."
"The findings provide sound evidence of the importance of supporting people in actively managing their aging. The arch enemy of healthy aging that emerges is the attitude of setting limits on oneself while claiming it is too late for certain plans and activities. People learn negative views on aging throughout their lives and therefore tend to apply them to themselves when they are old. It is important to overcome this age self-discrimination," concludes Susanne Wurm.
Wurm, S., & Schäfer, S. K. (in press). Gain- But Not Loss-Related Self-Perceptions of Aging Predict Mortality Over a Period of 23 Years: A Multidimensional Approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000412
Prof. Dr. Susanne Wurm
Head of the Department of Prevention Research and Social Medicine
Institute for Community Medicine, Greifswald University Medicine
Prof. Dr. Susanne Wurm heads the Department of Prevention Research and Social Medicine at the Institute of Community Medicine, Greifswald University Medicine. Her research focuses on the topic of healthy aging, in particular the role of views on aging for health and longevity. In 2016, she was awarded the Baltes Prize of the Gerontological Association of America (GSA) for this work.
Dr. Sarah K. Schäfer worked as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Prevention Research and Social Medicine and moved to the Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research (LIR) in Mainz in 2021. Her work focuses on psychological resilience across the lifespan and the systematic synthesis of research findings. In 2021, she received the Eduard Martin Prize for outstanding doctoral theses from the Saarland University Society for her doctorate.