What is successful aging?
Seniors are living longer and are becoming a greater percentage of the population in the twenty-first century. Advances in medicine such as vaccines, antibiotics, and treatments for diseases such as diabetes and cancer enable people to live longer and healthier lives. Since the early twentieth century, the average life span worldwide has increased from forty-seven to sixty-eight years old; in developed countries the average is around eighty. Thus, the traditional retirement age of sixty-five is no longer considered old, since many people live into their eighties and nineties.
The growing number of seniors is redefining aging. Concerns have been raised about society’s ability to cope with an aging population that puts greater demands on health care and community caregiving resources. However, many individuals entering their later years are healthy, active, and involved in their communities. They are still willing and able to contribute to society. Seniors are at the forefront of the movement to discover strategies for successful aging.
The perception of aging has drastically changed since the beginning of the twentieth century. Retirement was for the rich only until Social Security was introduced in the United States in 1935. For the first time, everyone could expect to live decently in old age. Retirement communities such as Sun City, Arizona, sprang up to cater to an aging population with the funds and leisure to enjoy life in retirement. Today, many older adults continue to work after retirement and volunteer, babysit, and act as caregivers.
Both culture and genetics influence how people age. Scientists have discovered several places in the world where many people live a long time with a high quality of life. These areas include Sardinia in Italy, Okinawa in Japan, the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica, Abkhazia in Georgia, and Loma Linda in California. Genetics, healthy eating habits, and a culture promoting freedom and well-being are factors in the successful aging process in these locations. Researchers studying centenarians have found that both health and life span are determined by genetics; however, genes can be influenced by lifestyle, diet, and environmental factors. The mapping of the human genome promises new possibilities to extend life expectancy and promote healthy aging.
Healthy aging is a combination of physical, mental, and social well-being. In general, older individuals today are in better physical shape than their predecessors. Sonia Arrison in her book 100+ (2011) explains that, in the United States, chronic diseases are affecting people later in life. According to a 2009 study conducted by Pew Research, older individuals do not feel "old." One-third of respondents between the ages of sixty-five and seventy-four felt ten to nineteen years younger than their chronological age. Seniors who continue to maintain an active social life with family, friends, and community feel free to remain independent as they age successfully.
Successful aging begins with a conscious effort to continue participating in life. There are several proven successful aging strategies. In her book Living the Good Long Life (2013), lifestyle specialist Martha Stewart says, "The quality of the rest of your life is more within your control than you think." Many chronic diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease can be prevented or managed by making positive lifestyle choices. Healthy habits such as staying physically active, reducing stress, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and drinking moderately have been proven to improve the quality of life and reduce the incidence of chronic diseases. Physical activity in the form of daily exercise totalling at least two and a half hours a week keeps both the brain and the body healthy.
Challenging the brain is another effective aging strategy that has been a proven strategy throughout history. Working on new and stimulating mental activities, such as solving puzzles, learning a language, or traveling, challenge the brain. Giving the gift of time in a volunteer capacity not only benefits the community but also keeps older citizens engaged in their community. More and more wealthy individuals are reinventing themselves as they age. For example, Bill Gates left Microsoft to devote his time to combating malaria and solving the world’s energy problems through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Having an active social life reduces loneliness in the aged and also alleviates symptoms of depression and other mental illnesses. Engaging with one or two active social groups is essential to successful aging. Social interaction improves life at all ages, but it is particularly important for older individuals who need the support of a circle of friends to provide counsel, affection, and the freedom to interact with others as individuals in a social setting. According to Pew Research, 70 percent of respondents over sixty-five enjoy spending more time with family members.
Perhaps the most important strategy for successful aging is having a positive attitude about life. Staying curious about the world and finding your passion promotes joy in life. Acceptance of life’s challenges reduces stress. Sharing this positive attitude with others, particularly younger people, is an important aspect of aging. Passing on knowledge, compassion, and beliefs to the younger generation not only unites the generations but also builds a better world. When older individuals continue to engage in their community, they are leaving a valuable legacy to the world as well as creating a blueprint for successful aging.
Arrison, Sonia. 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, from Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith. New York: Basic, 2011. Print.
Chappell, Neena L., and Marcus J. Hollander. Aging in Canada. Don Mills: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.
Cravit, David. The New Old: How the Boomers Are Changing Everything—Again. Toronto: ECW, 2008. Print.
"Growing Old in America: Expectations vs. Reality." Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, 29 June 2009. Web. 20 May 2015.
Gurian, Michael. The Wonder of Aging: A New Approach to Embracing Life after Fifty. New York: Atria, 2013. Print.
Horstman, Judith. The Scientific American Healthy Aging Brain. San Francisco: Jossey, 2012. Print.
Novelli, Bill. 50+: Igniting a Revolution to Reinvent America. New York: St. Martin’s, 2006. Print.
Stewart, Martha. Living the Good Long Life: A Practical Guide to Caring for Yourself and Others. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2013. Print.
Taubes, Gary. "Live Long and Prosper." Discover 31.8 (2010): 80. Science Reference Center. Web. 19 May 2015.