The study looked to see whether using self-protective strategies (such as thinking positively and avoiding self-blame) could prevent lonely older adults from exhibiting increases in stress hormones and inflammatory biomarkers.
Over a six-year period, the study measured self-protective strategies with a questionnaire that asked participants to rate such statements as, “Even if my health is in a very difficult condition, I can find something positive in life,” or “When I find it impossible to overcome a health problem, I try not to blame myself.”
The research team also asked participants to what extent they felt lonely or isolated during a typical day and used saliva and blood samples to measure how much cortisol and C-reactive protein (CRP) the participants produced. Cortisol is responsible for stress-related changes in the body, while people with elevated CRP are at increased risk of inflammatory illnesses like diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
Their findings showed that positive thinking helped protect against an increase in cortisol secretion. Four years down the road, additional tests showed the participants’ CRP levels had improved as well.
The researchers reported that for those older adults who did not report feelings of loneliness, this type of thinking had no effect, ostensibly because their social networks helped them deal with age-related problems and have an outlet to discuss stressful circumstances.
According to the research leader, “Older adults can be taught through counseling or therapy to engage in self-protective thoughts in staying positive when it comes to their own health. That means a better quality of life, both physically and mentally — something we all want at any age.”