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Strive for Successful Aging

Author: Helen Dennis, Specialist on Aging

It’s time to celebrate.  Although aging can present risks of illness, limitation and loss, we are living in a time of increasing opportunity to age successfully. 

The term “successful aging” first appeared in 1987 in Science magazine.  Since then, more than  100 scientific articles have been published on the topic.

There is no single definition of successful aging.   One concept 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 change our DNA and slow down the normal aging process.

Another concept of successful aging is provided by Dr. John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn, authors of the landmark book Successful Aging (Pantheon, 1998).  According to the authors, successful aging is “effective functioning in later life.”  I translate that to mean being the best you can be in your middle and later years.

Traditional studies of aging typically have focused on understanding the declines of aging.  Rowe and Kahn did something different. They focused on older individuals who aged well. They wanted to know what we could learn from “successful agers.”

Their research involved the study of more than 1000 high-functioning volunteers ages 70 to 79.  After following them for eight years and collaborating with 16 research scientists, the authors found three common characteristics among their subjects:

They had a low risk of disease and disabilities.
What is meant here is they avoided risk factors for disease.  Risk factors, which I am sure you know, include smoking, lack of activity, obesity, chronic stress and excessive drinking.

They maintained a high level of physical and mental functioning.
This refers to the notion of “use it or lose it.”  Strong evidence indicates that exercising body and mind slows the normal aging process.

They stayed actively engaged with life.
This engagement meant establishing and retaining relationships, particularly those that are reciprocal, each giving and taking.   It also means being productive by getting involved with activities that have meaning.

Are these conditions for successful aging reasonable and feasible?  My feeling is yes.

For starters, here is Rowe and Kahn’s “recipe” for successful aging based on their research:

Eliminate risk factors: If you smoke, stop.  Lose weight if necessary.  Stay active.  Be moderate. Eat nutritious foods. Use sunscreen.  Manage your stress through exercise, yoga or meditation.

Get physically active:
At 88, Helen Hayes said it well.  “If you rest, you rust.”   Stay mentally engaged — in work, leisure pursuits and family activities.  Yes, that means chess, bridge, sudoku, crossword puzzles, learning a new language, travel or reading the newspaper. Learning anything new creates new neural pathways in the brain.

Engage in happy activities: Get social.  Stay connected.  Remember, reciprocity is the key.  Become engaged in productive behavior — those activities that have meaning which can be either paid or unpaid.  Consider continuing to work, volunteering, going to school and having fun with your grandchildren.

The successful aging concept emphasizes the importance of a life well lived.  It gives us permission to be who we are and to be the best we can be.

There have been critics who say that this approach to 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.

The mature generation has become a major consumer group and businesses are paying attention while aging research is at its all time high.

Successful aging is something we strive for.  It is positive.  It suggests potential, opportunity and effectiveness.  It is achievable. So let’s celebrate and seize the moment for ourselves and share it with family, friends and special loved ones.

© Helen Dennis 2010, all rights reserved.

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