There’s a healthy reason to celebrate the old during the holidays

When it comes to aging and doing well, a positive attitude matters. In fact, those who hold negative views of aging and the elderly may be exposing themselves to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As they describe it in the journal Psychology and Aging, researchers from the National Institutes of Health, Yale, and Johns Hopkins studied a unique group of 52 individuals who underwent yearly brain scans as they grew older. The research subjects at the start of the study went on record in detail with their own views on aging. These individuals also were fit and cognitively sound at the study’s outset.

The researchers examined participants’ brains, as seen in a decade of scans, and they also performed post-mortem scrutiny of key tissues — on average two decades after the study subjects had filled out their information on their views on aging.

Those with the most negative views about aging showed the greatest decreases in brain tissues associated with memory and had the most signs of the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting a “culture-based risk” in having a bad attitude about growing old and what that mean to their lives, the researchers said.

Why it matters: The United States, like many industrialized nations, especially in Europe and with Japan, is rapidly graying, and how the medical establishment deals with the old is an emerging crisis.

Although more Americans are living longer, many are heading into their supposed golden years with chronic conditions, and these are made worse and more complicated, in care terms, because many more are obese, often morbidly so. There’s another category of older Americans who aren’t well and who might be helped by major procedures but these often have been withheld on what amounts to an age basis. For every instance of a spry sort like President Carter and his aggressive chemotherapy for a cancer that had spread, there are tough choices for physicians, patients, and families about offering big therapies like hip transplants, open heart surgery, or rigorous, draining, cancer-fighting care for those in their 80s and 90s.

The issue of long life, quality of living, and healthcare also may become even more complex in the near future, as researchers try to fathom the implications of data suggesting that advances may stretch further the inherent, physiological bounds on the humans’ individual existence.

For now, I’d be happy if kids of all ages were on their best behavior around our older friends and loved ones at holiday parties, and, for everyone’s health’s sake, we aimed now and in the New Year to get rid of ageist put-downs, humor intended or no.

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