The Keys to Healthy Aging

Today, most people don’t just want to live long lives. They want to live long healthy lives, or as the old adage puts it, “to die younger, as old as possible.” Most of us want to add life to years, not just years to life.

We all know people who have been very successful at aging – not just the “super
elders” who run marathons, but ordinary people who maintain vital, active lives, even in the face of chronic illness.

What are the predictors of healthy aging? The results of a 16-year study of nearly 400 older men and women age 65-95 shed interesting light on some of the key factors.

Successful aging was defined for this study as having little or no difficulty with daily physical activities such as bathing, eating, dressing, shopping, cooking, doing housework, walking a flight of steps or half a mile, lifting or carrying 10 pounds, writing or handling small objects. At the beginning of the study in 1984, nearly 60% of those surveyed scored as successfully aging. By 1990, 16 years later, only 35% still qualified.

What predicted successful aging? Clearly more than just the absence of disease:

  • Income: Those with income above the lowest quarter of the group were nearly twice as likely to age successfully.
  • Education: Those with 12 or more years of education also did better.
  • White ethnicity: Whites aged more healthfully than blacks.
  • Chronic disease: Those without diabetes, chronic lung disease, arthritis, or hearing problems fared better.
  • Depression: The absence of depressed feelings made successful aging twice as likely.
  • Personal contacts: Those reporting five or more close personal contacts nearly doubled the rates of successful aging.
  • Exercise: Seniors reporting that they walked often for exercise were nearly twice as likely to enjoy healthy aging.

We may not have much personal control over the first four factors. But behavior and lifestyle can make a significant difference in the last three. In this study, those who were not depressed, had close personal contacts and walked often, tripled their chances of healthy aging.

What are the lives of healthy agers like? The successful agers were also surveyed to give us a glimpse of what old age could be like. Their responses paint a much brighter picture than the usual stereotypes. These seniors were very active: doing more paid and volunteer work, exercising or playing sports, driving a car, and participating in more community activities such as attending religious services. They saw the physician a lot less, spent less time sick in bed, napped less, and were much less apt to feel too tired to do the things they enjoy doing. Successful agers were also less depressed and often felt excited or pleased. If this is the future you want for yourself, there are things you can do today to increase your chances. To some degree, the choice is yours.

Rx Self-Care Tips

For anyone wishing to enjoy healthy aging:

Watch out for depressed feelings. Get help early. Medications, psychotherapy, and self-help most often can alleviate depression. Plan for pleasurable activities and events. Learn how to monitor and change negative and pessimistic thinking. Accentuate the positive.

Maintain frequent personal contact with five or more friends or family members. Friends can be good medicine.

Exercise regularly. The simplest, and often easiest exercise-walking-provides outstanding health benefits. Any amount of physical activity is better than none. In short, move it or lose it.

For More Information

Strawbridge WJ, Cohen RD, Shema SJ, Kaplan GA: Successful aging: Predictors and associated activities. American Journal of Epidemiology 1996;144:135-141.

Excerpted with permission from the Quarterly Newsletter, Mind/Body Health Newsletter. For subscription information call 1-(800)-222-4745 or visit the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge website.

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Written by David S. Sobel MD

Explore Wellness in 2021