Getting older and getting better


Find out how to age successfully-- both mentally and physically.

Do you feel like your best years are behind you? Do you dread each upcoming birthday? You're not alone. Our society portrays getting older in such a negative light that it's no wonder that people have these beliefs. According to the media hype, getting older means that you will become infirmed, demented, and isolated from friends and family.

It doesn't have to be this way. New research on successful aging challenges the view that we lose our most valued qualities as we age. In fact, it's quite the opposite. It's true that aging does involve many physical changes, a good number of these don't impair our body's basic functions. And even for the changes you can see, many are preventable if not reversible. You don't even need plastic surgery.

Everyone has a different take on what's scary about aging. But for many people, the prospect is far worse than the reality. A national survey conducted in 2009 by the Pew Research Center on almost 3,000 Americans compared the expectations of people under 65 years old with the reality of people 65 and older. In each case, older people thought their situation was far superior than the younger adults had imagined. Memory loss was the most feared outcome of aging, expected by over half (57%) of the younger and middle-aged adults. However, only 25% of those 65 and older felt their lives were significantly worsened by an inability to remember. All down the line, the older people said they were far less affected by conditions ranging from loss of sexual activity to serious illness to loneliness. Among respondents 75 years and older, 81% said they were "very" or "pretty" happy. These results concur entirely with the yearly findings published by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration survey on what they call "serious mental distress." The percent of those 18-25 who state they experience this psychological state far exceeds those 50 and older.

What explains this "paradox of well-being?"  One answer to this question is the survivor effect: the unhappier and unhealthier people tend to die at younger ages so they're not in the samples available to be surveyed. This may seem obvious, but it's a point often forgotten in most studies of aging. Setting this explanation aside, as people get older they do seem to find ways to interpret their experiences in a positive light, giving them a buffer against the effects of aging. Older adults are better able to manage their emotions, seek out relationships that give them pleasure, and rely on a lifetime of successful coping. Of course, there are variations in the way people adapt to aging. However, the successful ones find ways to traverse their later years with optimism, vitality, and engagement in the world around them.

What can you learn from successful agers to give you more fulfillment in life? Here are five practical tips:

1. Stay active. Physical and mental activity are the keys to maintaining health and vitality at all ages. The more you exercise your body and mind, the better you will feel.

2. Look for new experiences. Don't get locked into a predictable lifestyle. Change things up every now and then to give your life more variety and excitement.

3. Engage with the world around you. Learn about what's going on around you and get involved. Volunteer in your community. Join or start a social group. Family is important to happiness, but you also need to expand your horizons.

4. Keep tabs on your health. If you want to live to enjoy your later years, you need to take steps now to make sure that you will in fact survive. 

5. Become an educated health news consumer. It seems that every day brings new findings about health risks and treatments. Pay attention to this news, but be discerning about what advice to follow. 

I'll be talking about these topics, and more, in my later postings on this site. Meanwhile, remember that getting older CAN mean getting better!