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By Harvard Pilgrim Health Care
This article is a part of Studio/B’s Aging Strong series, exploring how individuals, from athletes to entrepreneurs, have navigated the challenges of aging—and the habits that can help others age strong too.
Aging can be a difficult reality to accept as an older adult. Day-to-day aches and pains become the norm, and a slowing down of the body combined with increased fragility may hold you back from doing the things you could easily achieve when you were young. Not to mention the physical changes that occur in the brain from age, which can cause memory loss and memory disorders like Alzheimer’s and dementia.
These changes aren’t just physical, though; they have psychological effects on an older person, too. A 68-year-old needs her daughter to read the menu to her at a restaurant because she forgot her glasses; a 75-year-old needs help balancing her checkbook when she begins forgetting if she’s paid her bills; an 84-year-old man can no longer drive after having a stroke and needs his grandson to take him out to run errands; a 90-year-old’s family decides to move him to a nursing home when they are unable to accommodate his need for around-the-clock care. As a result of these physical changes, many older people are finding themselves suddenly needing help, and typically from those who used to need them.
No matter how fast or slow that need for help arises, it’s a jarring experience—one that can make an aging adult question their own value and place in the world, and even more so in cultures that don’t respect elders. In fact, according to a 2016 World Values Survey conducted by WHO regarding discrimination and negative attitudes towards older adults, 60% of those surveyed felt that older people are not respected. With so many negative stereotypes about the older population (e.g. feeble, slow-moving, forgetful), that percentage is, unfortunately, not shocking. Naturally, all of this affects an aging person mentally—particularly when it comes to their own perceptions, cognitive abilities, and social relationships—and demonstrates why mental sharpness is crucial to successful aging.
Happiness is everything to successful aging
Robert J. Havighurst, an expert on human development and aging, is often attributed to coining the term “successful aging,” noting in 1961 that there are two theories to aging successfully. One of these theories is the disengagement theory, which is the “acceptance and desire for a disengagement from active life.” Then there’s the more widely accepted theory, the active theory, which is the “maintenance as far and as long as possible of the activities and attitudes of middle age.” When looking at successful aging, Havighurst focused primarily on happiness and satisfaction.
Happiness is everything when it comes to successful aging. In UCLA psychology professor Alan Castel’s book, “Better with Age: The Psychology of Successful Aging,” he discusses a study that analyzed diary entries written by Catholic nuns in their 20s. Determining their levels of happiness based on the entries, the finding 50 years later was that the happier nuns lived 10 years longer than those who seemed unhappy. This finding further supports the research-based fact that happy people live longer.
Though there are negative stereotypes or feelings about getting older that affect self-perception, Castel says that doesn’t have to be the standard. In his book, he appears to support the active theory by stating: “Successful aging involves being productive, mentally fit, and, most importantly, leading a meaningful life.” He goes on to cite various examples of well-known individuals—Maya Angelou, Claude Monet, and Mark Twain, for example—who found happiness and/or success when they were older as a result of their chosen activities and lifestyles.
Impact of activities and social connection
The quality of life in older adults is usually centered around health and finances, but there are other factors to consider. According to PsychologyToday.com, “second and third careers, lifelong learning, leisure pursuits, voluntary work, and caregiving can also contribute, positively or negatively, to future quality of life.”
Another study Castel mentions in his book found that those between 75 and 85 who actively danced, read, and played board games and musical instruments, had fewer cases of dementia compared to those who didn’t do any of those activities. People who speak a second language are also less likely to get dementia.
It’s also important for aging adults to maintain an active lifestyle socially, considering loneliness can increase a person’s risk of dementia by 40%. Loneliness, according to Castel, “poses as large a risk to long-term health and longevity as smoking cigarettes, and may be twice as harmful for retirees as obesity.”
Tips for longevity
Nearly 10 million people are going to be 85 or older by 2030, so staying active, both physically and mentally, is essential. With the increased probability of health issues in older adults, it’s easy to feel like it’s an inevitable part of life—but there are things you can do to help improve your quality of life (and even prolong your life) as you age:
• Staying physically active: Most older adults do not get enough exercise, but exercise can improve certain diseases and disabilities, prevent or delay others, and improve mood or depression. Consult with your doctor if you’re concerned about how much physical activity you can handle, but walks, bike rides, dancing, and even doing chores around the house are good ways to get moving.
• Finding the right balance: Not only can balance exercises help prevent falls, but a 2014 British study also showed that those who were able to get up and sit down in a chair 30+ times in a minute were likely to live longer and not as likely to get dementia compared to those who couldn’t.
• Discovering new hobbies: As mentioned previously, those who danced, read, played board games, and played musical instruments were at a lower risk of getting dementia. Participating in an activity you enjoy can bring happiness, but also helps keep your mind sharp. Try reading, working in the garden, doing a puzzle, or even playing a game of chess.
• Engage with others: Maintain social connections with those around you to avoid the damaging effects loneliness can cause. It’s easy to stay social while exercising or participating in your favorite hobby. Go on regular walks with a family member, play a weekly game of Scrabble with a friend, or join a book club.
• Maintaining a balanced diet: This is beneficial throughout your life, but especially as you get older. Certain foods are best for staying healthy and even living longer, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fish.
• Getting enough sleep: Studies have shown that insomnia can be connected to early onset dementia, so maintaining a regular sleep schedule (and avoiding naps when possible) is vital. A solid 7-9 hours of sleep per night is recommended.
• Create achievable goals: Be precise. “Eat more vegetables” may be a goal, but the lack of detail makes it difficult to measure success. “Eat a serving of vegetables during two meals per day,” however, provides a clear plan on how you can achieve your goal.
• Practice mindful meditation: Mindfulness meditation at any age is shown to improve the capacity to manage stress and relate to physical and emotional pain with more ease and less reactivity. “One of the unique benefits of mindfulness that stands out as it relates to older adults is increased acceptance of the challenges of aging,” notes Harvard Pilgrim Health Care’s Mind the Moment program manager, Tara Healey. “Overall, one’s resistance to the realities of aging and all the challenges that come with it have the potential to decrease. This attitude of receptivity and acceptance of mind supports greater appreciation for all the joys and sorrows of life.”
On the positive side, recent research shows that older adults today are reportedly healthier than older adults in the past—a likely pattern in the future for those who successfully age (and, of course, thanks to medical advancements).
Ultimately, the best rule to follow to age successfully is to do what makes you happy, since happiness increases our lives by four to 10 years. As an older adult, surrounding yourself with people who bring you joy and spending your time doing the things you love can only be beneficial to your overall health and well-being.