One of the more intriguing features of my office life in pre-pandemic days was the regular appearance of our corporate courier, a jovial septuagenarian known to all as Mr. Perfect. A devout evangelical Christian who packed a pistol and loudly bemoaned the liberal tilt of American culture, he and I shared few beliefs beyond the vague notion that your attitude could shape your day.
“How are you doing today, sir?” I would inquire.
“I am perfect,” he’d respond. “And you are . . .”
“Yes, you are!”
I initially suspected this approach was connected to his Christian belief system, the notion that all God’s children are made in His image, etc., and maybe that was part of it, but it may have been more about free will. “We create our own reality,” he often asserted.
Mr. Perfect came to mind last week after stumbling upon a couple of recent studies suggesting that the way we perceive ourselves and the aging process while navigating middle age may affect how well we endure its myriad challenges decades later.
Writing in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development, Oregon State University researchers analyzed survey responses from about 250 volunteers between the ages of 52 and 90 and reported that those who expressed a positive view of their aging selves tended to enjoy longer and healthier lives. As study coauthor Karen Hooker, PhD, explains it, growing old is more than a biological process.
“People need to realize that some of the negative health consequences in later life might not be biologically driven. The mind and the body are all interwoven,” Hooker notes. “If you believe these bad things are going to happen, over time that can erode people’s willingness or maybe even eventually their ability to engage in those health behaviors that are going to keep them as healthy as they can be.”
Meanwhile, a study published last week in Psychology and Aging concluded that an optimistic view of aging can actually mitigate the damaging effects of chronic stress as we grow old.
A team of researchers from the German Centre of Gerontology combed through three years of data from more than 5,000 people 40 and older who participated in the German Ageing Survey. Respondents described their perceived stress levels and functional fitness as well as their “subjective age” — how old they actually felt.
Those who said they felt younger than their chronological age tended to be healthier, regardless of their stress levels, notes lead study author Markus Wettstein, PhD. “Our findings support the role of stress as a risk factor for functional health decline, particularly among older individuals, as well as the health-supporting and stress-buffering role of a younger subjective age.”
All this suggests that an upbeat attitude about aging may extend your lifespan; indeed, an earlier study found these folks lived on average 7.5 years longer than their pessimistic counterparts.
Nothing, however, is certain in this life.
I never asked Mr. Perfect how old he was, but I figured he’d been meandering through his eighth decade for a while. And I never needed to ask him how old he felt, because it was pretty clear he felt perfectly fine at whatever age he happened to be.
So, when I learned that he’d passed away during the early weeks of the pandemic, I didn’t need to inquire about the cause or even wonder much about the circumstances. How could his departure be anything less than perfect?