Optimism, stubbornness, a good work ethic, and a strong family bond — could these be the ingredients to a long, happy life? A new study suggests that they might be.
Scientists found that these psychological traits were common in a group of elderly adults from Italy, and that these adults had better mental well-being than younger members of their family.
Senior study author Dr. Dilip V. Jeste — who works in the Center of Healthy Aging at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine — and colleagues believe that their findings help to shed light on the psychological characteristics that might benefit mental health in old age.
The researchers recently reported their results in the journal International Psychogeriatrics.
The number of adults living to the age of 65 and over is now higher than ever, and it continues to grow. According to the Population Reference Bureau, there are around 46 million adults aged 65 and older in the United States, and this number is expected to more than double by 2060, to over 98 million.
So, why are we living longer? Well, according to Dr. Jeste and colleagues, most studies that have investigated the reasons behind humans' increasing lifespan have focused on genetics — more specifically, how certain genes might protect us against age-related disease and increase longevity.
"However," the researchers write, "qualitative research is also needed to allow these exceptionally old adults to communicate their experiences, personal views, and life strategies through their narratives."
In other words, are there certain psychological attributes that could help us live to a ripe old age?
Interviewing elderly adults from Italy
To help answer this question, Dr. Jeste and colleagues enrolled 29 elderly adults from across nine remote villages in Southern Italy. The adults were between the ages of 90 and 101, and 10 were male and 19 were female.
The study also included the younger family members of each of these adults, who were between the ages of 51 and 75 years.
For the study, all adults were interviewed by a psychologist, who asked them about their personalities and life histories, including their culture, traditions, and experiences of grief and trauma. Younger adults were also asked to offer their views on "the personality traits of their older relatives."
The physical and mental health of each participant were assessed using a variety of questionnaires, including the Perceived Stress Scale and the nine-item Patient Health Questionnaire.
Elderly adults had better mental health
While the elderly adults had poorer physical health than their younger family members, the team found that they had better mental health.
Interestingly, they identified some common characteristics associated with better mental well-being in the elderly adults. These included positivity, a good work ethic, a strong bond with their family, and strong connections with religion and their land.
"The group's love of their land," explains first study author Anna Scelzo, from the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse in Italy, "is a common theme and gives them a purpose in life. Most of them are still working in their homes and on the land. They think, 'This is my life and I'm not going to give it up.'"
The researchers note that self-confidence, strong decision-making skills, and stubbornness were other common traits among the elderly adults.
"We also found that this group tended to be domineering, stubborn, and needed a sense of control, which can be a desirable trait as they are true to their convictions and care less about what others think," says Scelzo. "This tendency to control the environment suggests notable grit that is balanced by a need to adapt to changing circumstances."
The team now plans to monitor these elderly adults over longer periods and search for biological markers of psychological and physical health.
The researchers write:
"Such studies may pave the way for developing novel biological as well as behavioral interventions to enhance positive traits in younger individuals too, thus promoting not only longevity but also health, well-being, and happiness in later life."
"Studying the strategies of exceptionally long-lived and lived-well individuals, who not just survive but also thrive and flourish, enhances our understanding of health and functional capacities in all age groups," the team concludes.