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Older adults have a number of psychological and physical problems that can potentially increase their risks for the onset of mental illness. In line with these increased risks, significant numbers of people over the age of 55 develop depression or some form of medically serious anxiety. However, older adults also frequently develop positive attitudes toward life that may help protect their mental health. According to the results of a study published in 2010 in the journal Cortex, certain changes in the brains of older individuals may help explain this protective, positive outlook.

The Influence of Aging

Aging makes profound changes in the everyday mental and physical function of adults. Examples of the mental changes associated with the aging process include a decline in the effective storage or use of short-term memories, a decline in the use of long-term memories, a decline in the skills needed to pay attention to one’s general surroundings, and a decline in the ability to focus on one thing and maintain that focus. Examples of the physical changes associated with aging include reductions in muscle size and strength, a delayed digestion process, lost hearing, lost eyesight, a reduction in the density (i.e., mineral content) of various bones, tooth and gum problems, and a decline in the heart’s ability to pump blood efficiently to the body. These changes are common, but not uniform. Some aging individuals develop significant mental and/or physical problems, while others do not.

The changes brought about by aging increase an individual’s risks for developing depression, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Depending on their general level of health and degree of mobility, the frequency of depression in the elderly ranges from 1 to 5 percent (in people still healthy enough to live without assistance in their own homes) up to roughly 13 or 14 percent (in people who require help from a home health provider). Anxiety disorders also appear with some frequency in people age 55 and older. According to the results of a study published in 2010 in the American Medical Association’s Archives of General Psychiatry, 12 percent of people in this age group have a form of medically serious anxiety such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a specific phobia like agoraphobia or hypochondria.

Positivity and Older Adults

Compared to younger adults, older adults have a greater ability to think positively and limit the influence of negative states of mind, the authors of a study published in 2012 in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science report. Numerous factors may help explain this age-related difference. For instance, some researchers believe that older adults consciously focus on the goal of mental well-being and learn to diminish the impact of disappointment and defeat. Other researchers believe that older adults tend to actively exclude “negative” emotional influences from their active network of friendships. Still other researchers believe that older adults have a conscious or unconscious tendency to remember things that make them feel optimistic or happy, and a corresponding tendency to forget things that make them feel pessimistic or unhappy.

In the study published in 2010 in Cortex, a team of researchers used an imaging technology called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the brains of a group of adults between the ages of 61 and 80 while those adults looked at photographs that contained either “positive” and “negative” subject matter. These researchers concluded that older adults activate a specific part of the brain while looking at “positive” images; this part of the brain strongly links memories with emotional experiences. It appears that older adults use this brain activation to recall pleasant memories more easily and essentially make themselves feel better.

Mental Health Effects of Positivity

More than 130 separate studies document the mental health benefits of optimism, the Yale Medical Group reports. An extensive review conducted in 2010 examined the potential connections between many of these studies’ results. The authors of this review concluded that people with generally optimistic outlooks live longer than other people and experience an improvement in a range of factors that support physical well-being. Compared to people with generally pessimistic life outlooks, optimistic people also apparently have reduced risks for the onset of anxiety, severe forms of major depression, and socially dysfunctional behavior. The authors of a study published in 2010 in the journal Clinical Practice & Epidemiology in Mental Health believe that optimism may help safeguard both mental and physical health by doing such things as increasing general involvement in healthy living, improving the ability to adapt to changing life circumstances, and helping people balance negative information by putting it in perspective.

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