Words matter when it comes to healthy aging and your current well-being, a new study finds. Here's what to know.

People who aren't afraid to talk about their feelings about aging, but don't get too hung up on getting older, tend to have better current mental and physical health. (Getty Images)
People who aren't afraid to talk about their feelings about aging, but don't get too hung up on getting older, tend to have better current mental and physical health. (Getty Images)

How would you complete the sentence, “When I am 64 …”? That’s the question researchers put to over 700 participants in a study recently published in the journal PLOS One. Lead study author and University of Zurich psychologist Tabea Meier tells Yahoo LIfe that her team found that the way people talk about aging provides a “window” into our current physical and emotional well-being. But the exact feelings about aging that were linked to better well-being surprised the researchers, and may offer some insights into what attitudes are most helpful as we look ahead to our later years.

Here’s what researchers learned — and what you can do to improve your own well-being.

Whether they wrote about positive or negative emotions, those who opened up about their feelings toward aging fared better, according to the study. “Individuals who were emotionally expressive had better markers of well-being, specifically of physical health,” Meier explains. “I would have expected positive emotions to also matter more but, in hindsight, it makes sense,” she adds. “There’s some research showing that expressing negative emotions might help us regulate emotions and stress.”

Meier says that her findings suggest that journaling — putting both positive and negative emotions to paper — may be good for your physical and mental health, and help you face the aging process with optimism.

The researchers found that people whose essays about aging involved a lot of “I-talk” — the use of “I” and related words like “my” — were more likely to have poor well-being. Much research has shown that “greater use of first-person-focused language is related to worse well-being,” Raeanne Moore, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, tells Yahoo Life. In fact, using a lot of self-focused words is considered a signal of potential depression and anxiety.

As a result, Moore says, it’s worth paying attention to whether you’re always talking or journaling in these self-focused terms, both for your current well-being, and to set the stage for healthy aging. “Psychological factors that positively impact successful aging are things such as resilience, gratitude, hope, awe, optimism, happiness and creativity,” she says. “Depression interferes with nearly all determinants of successful aging, so being able to identify via people’s language patterns if they are experiencing depressive symptoms could aid in the identification of when people are at risk for poor outcomes and when they need to reach out for help.”

In contrast, the study found that people who wrote about social connections — to friends, family or others — had better well-being. Loneliness has been linked to greater risks of everything from high blood pressure to anxiety and cognitive decline, and it’s experienced by about 1 in 4 older adults globally, according to the World Health Organization.

Experts say it’s not surprising that those who think of old age as lonely have poorer well-being. But that should be an incentive to stay connected, Moore says. “The older adults who I know and would call ‘successful agers’ are continuously keeping their mind and body stimulated, through various means such as exercising, socializing and cognitively stimulating activities,” she says. “Look at the popularity of pickleball! Not only does it check the box of physical activity, but it is also highly social and promotes intergenerational engagement.”

Words used by some of the study participants, such as “realize,” “understand” and “why,” were linked to poorer well-being and “might indicate tendencies to ruminate and [be] preoccupied with negative aspects of aging,” the researchers wrote. So, avoiding obsessing over worries about aging might help you feel better now and age more optimistically.

Melinda Ginne, a California psychologist who specializes in counseling elderly people and those with chronic illnesses, says it’s a good idea not to overthink aging. She likes to recount for her patients a moment from a TED talk given by the late neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, when he was asked if he had any age-related health problems. “I do what I think everybody should do: I ignore it,” Sacks quipped. “I’m all the time telling people to not make assumptions about their ages and health conditions,” rather than fixate on their limitations, Ginne tells Yahoo Life.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t take care of your health, Ginne adds.. But she sees a marked difference in her patients who don’t make the concerns of old age central to the way they talk to themselves or others. People who think positively and don't let the aging process "get them down … have a much better quality of life,” Ginne says.