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What it takes for “successful aging”

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Middle aged, happy female friendsAn innovative and remarkable study published in June 2023 by the University of Toronto Faculty of Social Work shows that, especially for older adults, keeping socially active has many beneficial effects on their mental and physical health. The conclusion goes so far as to say that people with higher social participation rates were associated with “successful aging.”

If you haven’t encountered the term “successful aging” before, it may need some definition. The term was first used by two highly recognized specialists in the field of gerontology, Professor John W. Rowe and Professor Robert Louis Kahn. You can read more about these two leading scientists here.  

In 1997, they published a seminal paper titled “Successful Aging” (which a year later came out in a book with the same title.) They suggested that “successful aging has several dimensions,” including:

  • sustained engagement in social activities
  • active avoidance of disease
  • maintenance of cognitive function.

Their work was instrumental in shifting the discussion of aging from predominantly about illness to a broader, more holistic view. The revised definition now incorporates a person’s subjective perception of their aging process and physical and mental health, including personal measures of emotional well-being such as happiness and satisfaction with their life. All of this adds up to their perception of their subjective well-being.

Before the concept of successful aging gained a foothold, researchers classified anyone with any chronic health conditions as not aging successfully. Thanks to this new view, people can be classified as aging successfully, even with a chronic illness, as long as they can engage in various daily activities and are free of disabling chronic pain. 

How is Successful Aging now defined?

The Toronto University study defines successful aging as “freedom from any serious physical, cognitive, mental, or emotional conditions that prevent daily activities, as well as having high levels of self-reported happiness, good physical health, and mental health.”

From this definition, it’s possible to pull out key factors that contribute to the experience of successful aging:

Physical wellbeing

Well-being is more than just the absence of ailments. People who are free of disabling pain or can medicate it down to tolerable levels without impacting their mental and cognitive state can engage in normal daily activities. 

Physical health comes from having daily habits encompassing nutrition, exercise, and social activities, taking proactive choices to stay healthy through regular medical check-ups, and staying updated on developments in therapies and medications. This commitment ensures that older people’s bodies can remain robust and resilient, supporting the whole person in pursuing the benefits of an active life. The Toronto University’s findings indicated that “respondents who participated in recreational activities and volunteer or charity work were 15% and 17% more likely to maintain excellent health.”

Mental health

Mental well-being is about nurturing the mind, embracing new experiences, and ensuring your cognitive faculties remain stimulated and agile. The current buzzword is “Mindful Aging.” Whether it’s through exercise, games, social interaction, or pursuing new hobbies, investing in activities in which you can connect, take notice, be active, keep learning, and give something back to society has been proven to allow a person to engage with the world with clarity, wisdom, and a zest for life.

Cognitive ability

Measurable changes in cognition occur with normal aging. The most important of these are declines in the ability to handle cognitive tasks that require a person to process or transform information quickly before making a decision. The factors involved are memory, language, visuospatial, and executive function abilities. These show up in measures of speed of processing, working memory, and executive cognitive function.

Emotional stability

The science behind how emotions are controlled in aging brains is highly complex and not so easy to explain in a few short sentences. Putting it as simply as possible (you can find a more detailed explanation on the website), unlike the decline in cognitive ability, people tend to handle adverse situations better as they age. Older adults often focus less on the bad stuff and remember more of the good moments. Several reasons might explain this:

  • Some prefrontal regions in the brain associated with emotional control remain more vigorous as we age, while others tend to decline. This helps older adults stay balanced emotionally.
  • Over time, people naturally learn ways to manage their emotions and handle stress. They might shift their focus away from negativity or choose to engage in activities that uplift their spirits.
  • Generally, maintaining good health plays a role in emotional stability. For instance, heart issues can affect certain parts of the brain, making it more challenging for some older adults to regulate their emotions. This could make them more prone to feelings like depression.
  • As a result of life experience, older people handle stress differently from their younger selves.

Cognitive ability, emotional stability and the Emotion-Cognition Paradox in aging.

The term “subjective well-being” (SWB) refers to how a person feels about their life. It is often used as a measure of the sense of someone’s life satisfaction and happiness. There is a paradox, labeled the Emotion-Cognition Paradox, that tries to explain the observed fact that there can often be no declines in subjective well-being in aging, even when cognitive ability is deteriorating.

This paradox has long perplexed researchers in cognitive neuroscience because as people age, emotional depth increases simultaneously as there’s a general reduction in basic cognitive functioning. Cognitive control capacity appears to peak in the mid-forties, while emotion regulation ability is still developing, and this trend is reversed with advancing age. Older adults react less to adverse situations, ignore irrelevant negative stimuli better, and remember relatively more positive than negative information than younger adults.

Perhaps one explanation for the paradox could be that aging people get more “bang for their buck” when it comes to emotional interactions. Let’s expose this “elephant in the room!”

couple high fiving The elephant in the room – some people grow happier as they age!

The paradox is investigated in a longitudinal and multi-dimensional study first published on It starts by explaining that there is a widely held assumption, including by older persons themselves, that subjective well-being declines with age. Given the many losses and declines accompanying old age in areas such as income, social relationships, roles, energy, and health, such a subjective reaction may be expected. However, the paradoxical finding of many researchers has been that self-perceived well-being remains stable or increases in later life. Multiple studies find a U-shaped relationship between age and life satisfaction, with the minimum level usually occurring between ages 40 and 50, followed by self-appraised life satisfaction increasing from middle age up to and through the 70s. 

One possible explanation for this is the greater use among older adults of accommodative strategies, such as adjusting goals and aspirations, because they sense that time is limited. They increasingly prioritize realizable emotional goals through social interactions to maximize their positive effect. With age, people seem able to emphasize positive over negative stimuli (known as the “positivity effect.”) Older people can remember positive events better than negative ones. Together with accommodative strategies, this may explain why older people have less severe and less prolonged emotional reactions to detrimental life events than younger adults. It may also be that as adults age, they develop personality characteristics such as gratitude, compassion, forgiveness, and tolerance, which can result in healthy relational and emotional outcomes.

Question people ask about successful aging.

What is an example of the positivity effect?

The positivity effect is a strategy that older adults can use to maintain their positive emotional experience despite age-related challenges. They can pay attention to and appreciate positive stimuli. When older adults see the world as “rosy,” they go on and feel better.

Who were the innovators of the Successful Aging theories?

Dr. John W. Rowe was the founding Director of the Division on Aging at the Harvard Medical School and was head of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. He served as Chairman and CEO of Aetna, Inc., one of the US’s leading healthcare organizations. Professor Robert L. Kahn was a psychologist by training who specialized in organizational theory and made significant contributions to the field of social psychology and aging.

Their collaborative groundbreaking work on successful aging revolutionized the perception and understanding of the aging process as we know it.

What are the five pillars of successful aging?

A good diet is vital in promoting a person’s overall well-being during their senior years.

Physical activity can help seniors avoid chronic severe diseases like diabetes or cardiovascular disease and be more productive and active throughout their day.

Studies have shown that seniors who maintain healthy relationships with family and friends are less likely to suffer from physical disabilities or mental illnesses.

Mental stimulation, like reading a book with a complex plot or watching television quiz shows, promotes active and healthy aging. These activities have been found to reduce the progression of cognitive deterioration in Alzheimer’s disease.

Meaningful activities and relationships promote general health. Older people who participate in meaningful activities and have broad social relationships are healthier than those who do not. 

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