Question: What are the secrets to successful aging?
Answer: One of the most popular questions I’ve received over the past 30 years, as a geriatric psychiatrist is, “What are the secrets to successful aging?” I usually start by quipping, “Good genes and good luck!” But, of course, there’s much more to consider.
What is “successful aging”?
One definition includes the following components: avoidance of physical illness and disability, maintenance of optimal cognitive and physical health, and remaining engaged with life. The concept has changed slightly over the years and today, many people and organizations also talk about “positive aging”, “healthy aging” and “aging well”. Rather than succumbing to Ageism (negative attitudes toward aging and the elderly) and the traditional focus on disease and disability, this positive aging movement strives to turn aging into a positive experience where everyone is encouraged to grow, reach their full potential, and ensure older adults are respected and able to live their full lives with dignity. By necessity, this movement recognizes the need to work at multiple levels including the individual, their family and the society in which they live.
Much has been written about the keys to successful aging over the past 50 years, and while a lot does depend on your genes, there are also many things you can do to control a major portion of your aging destiny. Many of these recommendations are the types of things your family physician discusses with you every year at your annual periodic health examination: physical exercise, mentally stimulating activities, staying socially engaged with family, friends and your community, avoiding smoking and drinking, and make sure your doctor is keeping an eye on your vascular risk factors (blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, weight etc.).
Characteristics of successful aging
In my experience, the individuals who cope best with the physical challenges and psychosocial stressors of aging share several common characteristics.
Flexibility and adaptability
First of all, they are remarkably flexible and adaptable. While this might sound simply like being able to “roll with the punches”, it is actually a much more active approach to dealing with changes in one’s life.
For example, an individual who is aging successfully may recognize that they are beginning to have trouble playing tennis, and adapt by switching to racquetball, or badminton. Perhaps, they take up walking or swimming instead of running. Or, if a person enjoys hitting the slopes, makes the change from downhill to cross-country skiing. The point being, rather than considering changes in ability as a loss or failure, that they instead become opportunities to learn new skills and enjoy new activities. This leads to the second characteristic of successful aging: lifelong learning.
Individuals who age successfully are constantly learning – and the opportunities to do this today are limitless. Attending lectures in community centres, learning online, taking continuing education classes or even enrolling in degree programs at university are all easily accessible today.
Learn a new language, learn ballroom dancing, learn how to play bridge, take bible study classes. And don’t forget to mix these up and take advantage of group and social activities along with the intellectual stimulation. These activities allow for personal growth, improve self-regard, and most importantly, stimulate brain function.
The third characteristic of successful aging is social connectedness. Keep family close, and keep friends even closer! While some of the saddest people I see are those individuals who tell me “all my friends have died…” the individual who is aging successfully will ensure they put themselves into situations where they can continue to meet and befriend others, and continuously grow their social circle. Love and friendship is the strongest antidote to depression and isolation that I know of.
Let’s face it – aging is not for the faint of heart. However, being adaptable, willing to learn new things and staying connected to individuals you love will help restrain those genes and allow you to make your own luck.