Modern medicine and improved sanitation have brought tremendous advances in life expectancy since 1950. Most Americans today can expect to live well into old age, thus the concept of “successful aging” has gained attention since it was first formulated in the 1998 book, Successful Aging, by John W. Rowe, M.D. and Robert L. Kahn, PhD.
In their groundbreaking study, the authors contend that the single most important factor in determining how we age is not genetics, but rather the way we live. In other words, lifestyle choices make the biggest difference in whether we age successfully or not.
Like most goals, achieving the goal of “successful aging” requires some amount of thoughtful action. We need to be mindful of the need to plan for changes in health, coping with loss and getting help when needed. More importantly, a solid plan for successful aging should include ways to reduce stress and encourage resilience. To this end, here are a few key components to consider as you formulate your plan for successful aging:
1. Rethink your views of “growing old”
Toss out the idea that “to be old is to be frail and sick.” Today’s older adults are seeing significant reductions in arteriosclerosis, arthritis, hypertension, stroke, emphysema and other chronic conditions. Moreover, those with chronic diseases are now able to live longer due to medicines that control the condition.
Keep in mind that only five percent of older people live in skilled nursing facilities, and while 10 percent suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, 90 percent do not. The link between body and mind is powerful, so as you plan your strategy for successful aging, ask yourself: What is my attitude toward growing older?
2. Keep learning
The old adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” is simply not true. Older people have proven time and again they can learn a wide variety of new things. The key is to build regular mental exercises into your lifestyle.
Warren Buffet, the highly successful 86-year-old billionaire philanthropist, credits his own successful aging to voracious reading. He spends 80 percent of his day on this mental exercise! You may not want to duplicate his reading habit, but the simple act of reading every day helps keep your mind sharp.
Other ways to stay mentally healthy include playing board or card games, working crossword puzzles, number or word games, and even playing video games. You may also want to explore learning a new language or taking up a new hobby, as these are also good ways to keep the neurons firing efficiently
Ask yourself: Does my plan for successful aging include ways to teach myself “new tricks”?
3. Adopt Healthy Habits
The importance of adequate sleep, exercise and a balanced diet on one’s ability to age well cannot be understated. Studies have shown that our biological aging is more under our control than most people think. Making positive changes in diet, exercise and sleep habits — even in our older years — can have a likewise positive effect on our longevity and ability to function independently.
Ask yourself: What changes am I willing to make in my health habits that will enable me to age successfully?
4. Build & Maintain Social Connections
As we age, the loss of loved ones and declines in mobility can cause us to become socially isolated. Studies routinely find that social isolation and its resulting loneliness has far-reaching effects on both mental and physical health.
A 2010 Brigham Young University study found that friends, family, and close neighbors can improve our odds of survival by 50 percent, and that low social interaction compares on par with smoking 15 cigarettes a day, is more harmful than not exercising, and is twice as harmful as obesity.
Social isolation is something many people fail to plan for, but it’s well worth the mental effort. Recognizing the possibility that you may one day be living alone can help you to begin thinking of ways to overcome the negative effects of social isolation. Many seniors report that friendship is a key factor in keeping them active and emotionally secure, even in advanced old age.
Ask yourself: How will I stay connected and engaged with others as I age? How can I make it work if I can no longer drive, or if I don’t live near friends or family?
5. Match Living Conditions with Needs
A mismatch between where you live and what you need can often cause extreme stress, which correspondingly has a damaging effect on both mental and physical health. As we age, the stress of maintaining a home, paying the bills, and dealing with unexpected repairs can create stressful living conditions. Worry over current or future health care needs can also create insecurity over current living conditions.
The thought of, “too much stuff and not enough time to enjoy life” can also create a negative outlook that can impact one’s sense of well-being. Worries about finances and the ability to pay for current living conditions over the long term can also cause mental anguish.
As you age, where you live increasingly matters. Ask yourself: Will I be financially able to live in my home for the rest of my life? Will I have easy access to friends, family and activities that give me joy? Will I have help and support if my health declines?
6. Plan for Meaningful Aging
As you review, investigate and deliberate on your plan for successful aging, strive to define the things that are most important to you. Successful aging involves discovering ways to age well, but “meaningful aging” is a way to determine how well you age.
Meaningful aging doesn’t focus on longevity and health, but rather on the things that are most important to us. It encourages us to find meaning and peace in our lives. And how well we practice what we find, in the final analysis, can lead us to successful aging.