Successful aging is an experience governed by gender, culture, personality, and health-related factors. For some, successful aging simply means freedom from disability, while for others it is a more comprehensive assessment of life satisfaction. With an aging population, our society needs to evaluate what it means to ‘age successfully’ and how we – as healthcare providers or as families, friends, and neighbors – can help the elderly among us achieve and maintain valuable years near the end of their lives.
Successful aging involves subjective criteria that are difficult to assess with objective measurements. But recently, new studies have been published that attempt to do just that. Measurements and assessments have included self-rated health, participation in activities of daily living, independence, depression, cognition, walking time and distance, number of days spent in bed, strength of extremities, recent hospitalizations, perceived resilience, personality traits, and overall life satisfaction.
Across several studies, high levels of resilience and low levels of depression and physical disability were associated with more successful aging. No cause and effect can be concluded from the studies, but the results support the role of mental health in successful aging. Associations between sociodemographic factors are complex and inconsistent. In a recent gerontology analysis, wisdom was deemed an important factor in successful aging. People considered to be ‘wise’ – generally identified as those with superior judgment, insight, and spirituality – have better mental health and well-being than other people because they tend to participate in meaningful activities.
Perception is reality when it comes to aging successfully: if a person feels she has aged well, then she has. If, on the other hand, she does not believe she has aged successfully, she has not, regardless of objective measurements. Another recent study in Gerontologist concluded that elderly people who self-reported successful aging, despite a high level of physical disability among the population evaluated, used adaptation and coping strategies to align their perception of successful aging with their own experiences.
Still, improved physical and emotional functioning do lead to more successful aging. Not surprisingly, many factors that influence physical and emotional well-being are not confined to life’s golden years, and variables that predict successful aging are apparent long before old age begins. Even young and middle-aged adults can control variables of biopsychosocial health, such as alcohol and tobacco use, marital stability, physical activity, body mass index, stress management, and education, that affect subjective and objective measurements of successful aging.
Understanding personal, cultural, and clinical perceptions of successful aging can lead to identification of interventions that can put healthy, wealthy, and wise years in your life and life in your years.
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