What is Successful Aging? And What Does It Look Like?

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Everyone has envisioned what their life might look like when they’re older. Many of us have even thought about the people in our lives that we consider to be “old” by our standards, only to be that same age later on and feel differently.

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We might have looked at them and admired their lives, their choices, and how they manage to become older and still retain their energy for life. Yet we might not even know how to get to that point.

There is no doubt that aging is something that affects us all. Yet, we don’t think too much about our own aging or what our lives will be like when we will be old. Some of the thoughts above are a few to consider when thinking about how to achieve success with advanced age. 

What Does ‘Successful Aging’ Mean?

There are many ways to define successful aging. The term was first originated by scholars John Rowe and Robert Kahn in the 1990s. They defined successful aging as freedom from disease and disability, having a high cognitive and physical functioning, and an active engagement with life. While this concept has aided in theory and research, it’s also sparked some controversy. For one, achieving all of these is nearly impossible. Aging is a natural process in which we can experience declines. 

While there are some things we can control, such as our diet and health behaviors, there are others we can’t control. If someone has a disease or disability does it mean they haven’t aged well? Of course not. And, it shouldn’t define someone. Older persons can still live great lives full of meaning, despite any kind of health decline or limitation.

Successful aging involves much more than the absence of disease. How it’s viewed also differs from person to person. It involves maintaining the highest autonomy, well-being, and preservation of one’s self and identity as possible, even in the face of limitation or loss.

The following are several ways to define or measure successful aging. Keep in mind that no one measure is better than the other. Think about which of the following resonates or would be most important to you.

  • Life expectancy — the number of years that you can expect to live
  • Life satisfaction and wellbeing (includes measures of happiness and contentment)
  • Mental and psychological health and cognitive function
  • Personal growth and learning new things
  • Physical health and functioning, independent functioning
  • Psychological characteristics and resources, including autonomy, control, independence, adaptability, coping, self-esteem, positive outlook, goals, and sense of self
  • Social, community, leisure activities, integration, and participation
  • Social networks, support, participation, and activity
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What Are Some Real-Life Examples of Successful Aging?

You don’t have to be in your eighties and run a marathon to age successfully, nor do you have to live to be past 100. Real-life examples of successful aging could mean many things.

It could mean starting a company later in life. It could mean participating in the senior Olympics and it could also involve overall happiness and enjoying life. When it comes down to it, what matters is quality of life and being able to live with a sense of purpose. Being able to do things for yourself and remaining as independent as possible is another component. 

Research shows that most people want to age in their own homes and communities. They want to grow old in their own homes and familiar surroundings, rather than long-term care. Even being able to age in place can be considered successful aging.

What are Strategies for Successful Aging?

There are many ways we can be proactive when it comes to our personal health and aging experience. The following are some tips to help you age as successfully as you can, depending on how you define success.

Maintaining a healthy diet

Maintaining good nutrition is key, no matter your age. Proper nutrition as a person ages is much more significant when it comes to successful aging than people realize.

So as we age, we start thinking more about things like eating enough fruits and vegetables, staying hydrated, and watching cholesterol and blood pressure levels. You may even want to talk to your doctor or a nutritionist about your diet and how you may be able to adapt it to live a healthier and longer life.

Social engagement and social support

The impact of a person’s social network is often overlooked as a part of aging. However, staying active, socially engaged, and living with purpose are all goals that support well-being.

Research shows that social engagement has positive impacts on health, well-being, and life satisfaction. It also protects against feelings of loneliness and social isolation, two conditions accompanied by a significantly increased risk with age. Increased social engagement may enhance one's confidence and ability to age in place. It could even delay or prevent having to move into a long-term care facility.

Engaging in physical activity

Whether you go to classes at the gym or need to exercise while sitting in a chair, it is important to stay as active as possible and to avoid a sedentary lifestyle. Engaging in physical activity helps one’s health and well-being in a number of ways. Due to its anti-depressive relationship with mood, physical activity is an effective treatment for depressive symptoms and is also considered a crucial component of the rehabilitation process for a range of different health conditions. 

Research suggests that engaging in even low levels of exercise may serve as a protective factor against depressive symptoms. Other studies have found that engaging in physical activity can help reduce pain, improve physical performance, and may improve or delay disability.

Access to information about community resources

Having a community to rely on is important for older adults in order to age with dignity, autonomy, and independence.

Such resources may include a local senior center, a village or naturally occurring retirement community, home health care, and other long-term care options. And, knowing who or where to call when a problem arises is also important. Other community resources could include a local library, a neighborhood association, or a ride service.

Healthy behaviors and coping strategies

Other healthy behaviors and coping strategies can also improve one’s aging experience. As many doctors say, it’s important to get adequate sleep, and not to drink or smoke in excess. Managing stress is another major component of living a healthy life.

Whether it’s meditating, engaging in yoga, seeking gratitude, or talking to a therapist, it’s important to address stress. Especially as it arises rather than building up and compounding other health-related issues. Similarly, it’s important to address physical ailments or limitations as they arise. This means visiting your primary care physician, engaging in as preventative care, and following medication regimens.

Purposeful engagement

Engaging in activities that you are passionate about, that sparks your interest, and creates some sort of meaning are other ways to improve your health, well-being, and aging journey. As is learning new skills or developing new and fulfilling hobbies. Anything that generates feelings of reward or purpose.

This could be volunteering at a local homeless shelter or knitting scarves for friends and family. As long as you continue to take part in activities that bring you pleasure.

Resiliency

The longer we live, the more losses we encounter. We will experience the loss of loved ones, the loss of certain capabilities, and may not be as physically able as we once were. While these losses may be discouraging, studies show that the way people adapt to changing circumstances is important.

If we respond positively to negative situations and adapt as much as possible we will fare much better than those who gave up. For example, maybe your vision declines and you love to read. Should this stop you from reading books? Quite the contrary as you can order books in larger print, listen to audiobooks, or even have someone read to you. All of these abilities contribute to our resiliency.

Success is in the Eye of the Beholder

When it comes to successful aging, success much like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It comes down to aging on your own terms, maintaining autonomy, and quality of life. In planning for your journey through life, start thinking about what you value and how you’d like to spend your golden years. 

Are there any changes you can make to achieve those goals? What is currently going well for you may set you on track in years to come. You may want to talk to others about how they view “successful aging,” if they think they have achieved it, and about any advice they may have.

Looking for more? Check out our picks for the best books on aging.


Sources

  1. Mallers, M. H., Claver, M., & Lares, L. (2013). Perceived control in the lives of older adults: The influence of Langer and Rodin’s work on gerontological theory, policy, and practice. The Gerontologist.
  2. Romo, R. D., Wallhagen, M. I., Yourman, L., Yeung, C. C., Eng, C., Micco, G., Perez-Stable, E. J., & Smith, A. K. (2012). Perceptions of successful aging among diverse elders with late-life disability. The Gerontologist.
  3. Rowles, G. D. & Bernard, M. (2013). The meaning and significance of place in old age. In G. D. Rowles & M. Bernard (Eds.), Environmental gerontology: Making meaningful places in old age (pp. 3-24). New York, NY: Springer Publishing Co.
  4. Werner-Wahl, H., Iwarsson, S., & Oswald, F. (2012). Aging well and the environment: Toward an integrative model and research agenda for the future. The Gerontologist, 0(0), 1-11.
  5. “What is Successful Aging and Who Should Define It?” www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1322264/
  6. “What is Successful Aging? Gerontologists Strive to Build Consensus.” The Gerontological Society of America. www.geron.org/press-room/press-releases/2015-press-releases/443-what-is-successful-aging-gerontologists-strive-to-build-consensus
  7. “Defining Successful Aging: The Importance of Including Cognitive Function Over Time.” Alexandra Fiocco and Kristine Yaffe. jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/article-abstract/800543
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