Life expectancy: A reason to wipe that smile off your face

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James M. Berklan, McKnight's Editor
James M. Berklan, McKnight's Editor

Even after a few weeks, it still seems like a bad joke. Maybe something pulled from the front page of The Onion, the satirical newspaper that has been lampooning revered subjects for years.

Every now and then, the paper sucks in editors at mainstream newspapers, or even foreign governments, to report on their spoofs as actual news.

But apparently not this time. There it was, in black, white and blue hotlinks on my computer screen.“Pessimistic people live longer: study” is the best headline I saw. Others talked of optimistic adults facing greater risks of disabilities and death.

This has to rank right up there with “Healthy, nutritious food would have saved the Titanic” and “Historians admit to inventing ancient Greeks.” But apparently not.

Optimism, it appears, can over stay its welcome and get in the way of, well, a grumpy, long life. So what does this mean for caregivers? No more cheerful, “Good morning, Mrs. Alexander!” in the morning? Eliminating the applause and cheering during the facility's Wii bowling tournaments? No more laughing at the eternally mirthful Jack Benny, Bob Hope, or Abbot and Costello rebroadcasts?

Not really. What researchers found was older adults' more dire predictions of their future satisfaction levels were more likely to be correct. “None of us get out of this alive anyway” might be the slogan for this cohort with the longer life expectancy.

One can only wonder what it's going to do to the sales of rose-colored glasses. Those who are overly optimistic tend not to take as many precautions, and therefore put themselves at greater risk of disability or decline, researchers point out.

Is the glass half full or half empty? The happier, half-full crowd is more liable to become dehydrated because, well, they're satisfied there's enough water around. Meanwhile, Negative Nancy is more liable to drink the water while she can and stay hydrated — and much more healthy.* (*This example is just the musing of a veteran long-term editor, hypothesizing on his own. But you get the idea.)

The study was conducted by a bunch of Germans, which might be all we need to know right there. After all, sauerkraut describes not just a side dish in which one can bathe his or her bratwurst.

Polling 40,000 German adults at five-year intervals uncovered that the 43% who had underestimated their future satisfaction were healthier than the 32% who had overestimated theirs.

The originally too-cheery crowd had 9.5% more disabilities and 10% higher risk of death after five years. Upon deeper review, one would have to assume that dying would not typically make a person more optimistic than his original plans. But, again, that's just an amateur analyzing the results.

There is a big silver lining in the study results for the majority of us. It seems that those who have the big bucks, or higher incomes, are more likely to have a greater risk of disability.

So if there's any moral to take from this study, it might just be that it's better to be gloomy and poor as one plods through old age. All the better to live a healthier, pessimistic, long, life.

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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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