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Be the Best You Can Be in Middle and Later Years

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

Dear Readers:

We have reason to celebrate.  We are living in a time of extraordinary opportunities to age successfully. Here is a confession:  I did not invent the concept “successful aging.” 

The term is often attributed to R.J. Havighurst, a noted educator and researcher who published the concept in a 1961 article in The Gerontologist. A definition also appeared in a 1987 edition of the journal Science.  Since then, there have been more than 100 scientific publications related to the topic.

Why is successful aging such an important concept?  Well, historically, aging has been equated with disease. And much of aging research and discussion has been based on the declines – what we lose – as a function of age.  This research is important, but is only one side of the story.

The approach taken by Dr. John Rowe and Robert Kahn fills in the gap. They wanted to know what we could learn from people who were aging well.

More than 10 years ago they published the book “Successful Aging,” based on the research of 16 scientists and the study of more than 1,000 high-functioning older people over a period of eight years.

They came up with a definition.  Successful aging is “effective functioning in later life.”  Taking a bit of academic liberty, I would define it as “being the best you can be in your middle and later years.”

According to the authors, people who aged successfully had three characteristics in common.

  • They had a low risk of disease and disabilities related to disease.  What is meant here is they avoided the risk factors for disease such as smoking, lack of activity, obesity, chronic stress and excessive drinking.
  • They engaged in high levels of physical and mental activities.  This refers to the notion of use it or lose it.  Evidence indicates that exercising our bodies and minds can slow the normal aging process.
  • They were fully engaged with life.  They retained relationships, particularly those that had a give and take.  And they were involved in activities that had meaning for them.

Another approach to define successful aging is genetic, involving telomeres. Telomeres are at the end of our chromosomes.  Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter.  Eventually they are so short the cell can no longer copy itself correctly.  The length of the telomere plays an important role in aging; the longer the better.

The good news is that physical activity has been linked to longer telomere lengths, meaning that lifestyle can possibly change our DNA and slow the normal aging process.

There have been critics who say that the concept of successful aging overlooks those who cannot “do it well.”  It depends.  Mother Teresa continued to serve the poor of India in spite of her own physical infirmities.  Franklin Roosevelt led the U.S. through war and an economic depression, despite the crippling effects of polio.

Studies have found that despite having chronic illnesses and some disability, older adults frequently see themselves as aging successfully.  In fact, studies indicate that contrary to expectations, the idea of successful aging often is not related to age but rather to activities, friends, family and spending worthwhile time.

The successful aging approach to life emphasizes the importance of a life well-lived.  It does not say that we need to look, behave or think as a younger person.  It gives us permission to be who we are, and to be the best we can be.

Successful aging is something we all strive for.  It is positive.  It suggests potential, opportunity and effectiveness.  It has research behind it.  It is achievable.

Copyright 2010 Helen Dennis. All rights reserved.

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