A group of 35 septuagenarians in the San Francisco Bay Area recently participated in an exercise few geezers — or anyone else — would probably welcome. Researchers asked them to predict how much longer they would live and then gauged their reactions when told they were probably going to cash in their chips sooner than they thought.
The study was ostensibly designed to determine how best to communicate with elderly folks facing a grim end-of-life prognosis, but it simply reaffirmed my belief that little good can come from seeking a glimpse into the future.
Doctors tend to avoid these sorts of conversations, for obvious reasons: They can alarm patients and their families, and they often lead to more aggressive treatment than is appropriate.
My mother was 80 years old and living independently in her own home when, after a routine doctor’s appointment, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. The prognosis was poor, my siblings freaked out, surgery and chemotherapy followed, and two brutal years later, she died. Would she have lived longer had that tumor remained hidden? There’s no way of knowing, but I’ve always believed her final months would’ve been happier ones had she been left in peace.
A frightening prognosis may not always lead to overtreatment, but it’s almost certain to challenge even the most optimistic geezer to stay positive — a proven antidote to chronic illness. Jane Brody, writing earlier this year in the New York Times, cited a 2016 study that suggests a positive view of your golden years can actually improve your health and even extend your lifespan.
“Psychologically, a positive view can enhance belief in one’s abilities, decrease stress, and foster healthful behaviors,” Brody writes. “Physiologically, people with positive views of aging had lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of stress-related inflammation associated with heart disease and other illnesses — even after accounting for possible influences like age, health status, sex, race, and education — than those with a negative outlook. They also lived significantly longer.”
It’s tough to keep your aging chin up when you’re told the Grim Reaper is lurking around the next bend — or even when the officially diagnosed ailments begin to accumulate. But it might not be as tough as you think. Those geezers in Frisco, it turns out, didn’t fall apart when researchers told them they may be wrong about their lifespan expectations. A few of them even disputed the official estimates. That’s about as positive as it gets.