HAS SPARKED INCREASED INTEREST IN SUCCESSFUL AGING?
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What is Successful Aging?
One of our Missourians
The concept of "wellness" has been associated with successful aging and is often confused with the notion of health. Wellness represents balance among the environment, emotional, spiritual, social, physical and cultural aspects of the individual's life. Health is a part of wellness. New definitions of successful aging continue to be developed as research and practice with the older adult population progresses.
Gerontologists debate the factors which lead to aging well. Many concepts have been studied over the last half of the twentieth century. Early research on aging reflected the concern with adapting to the physical, psychological, and social losses of aging. Cumming and Henry (1961) posed the disengagement theory at a time when life expectancy was shorter and mandatory retirement was in place. They posited that older persons naturally and voluntarily withdrew from society as they lost ability and interests while society simultaneously pulled back from them so that their death would not be so disruptive to the social group.
Many positive studies have taken place since 1961.
"The glass is half full or half empty"
Subjective and objective aspects of aging well are important in our discussion of successful aging. One can perceive experiences positively or negatively. Research claims that 85% of older adults are satisfied with their lives/aging. Levels of life satisfaction tend to be stable over time. Life satisfaction is strongly related to health, socioeconomic status and relationships with family and friends. Persons who age well are likely to perceive their objective circumstances as rewarding and positive.
We expect life satisfaction and positive perceptions of aging to follow financial security, ability to function, freedom from chronic disease, and quality relationships with friends and family. These elements and our perceptions of them, however, are complex and vary greatly among individuals--complicating research.
How we approach life or define our role may affect how satisfied we feel. We may react to life through the eyes of others rather than creating and advocating for our own value and role. Hence, an older adult may define how successful he/she is by the criteria and judgments of others.
Even researchers second-guess their own family's experiences and motivations. Some misinterpret the meaning of the extraordinary talents and activities of older adults who dance, weight train, climb mountains, write books, etc. One researcher found that his mother did not "perform" to attract attention, but rather to maintain her free will, self-mastery and creativity so that others will not regard her as "aged," dependent, and needy.
One could argue that all populations have the opportunity to age well. However, consider the following factors that illustrate that large numbers of Americans are at high risk for NOT aging successfully!
The health care delivery system continues to change. This uncertainty, particularly the instability of reimbursements and eligibility and entitlement criteria in our federal and state governments, portends further challenges to choice and access.
While external circumstances stymie aging well for particular populations, factors within culture and family may do so also. Familial lifestyle habits such as eating, smoking, and lack of exercise may limit healthy aging prospects. Values and cultural customs may influence lifestyle. Family relationships and responsibilities may also limit health-seeking behaviors. Culture and family influence our support network and relationships. Research has proven the value of social supports in aging well. (See also web site topic Relationships.)
In 1991 the United States Department of Health and Human Services reported a commitment to preventive wellness and quality of life for older adults through the initiative, Healthy People 2000. This effort studies and monitors the health of older adults with an impact target of 13% by 2000 and 22% by 2030.
Healthy People 2000 aims to:
(Ebersole & Hess, 1995)
For the last century studies have led us to believe that brain cells not be replaced. However, last November Swedish neurologists discovered in the hippocampi of hospital patients, deceased from a variety of causes, relatively young cells. This finding implies that there may be elements that preserve or improve mental function as we age if they can discover how these new cells are produced.
The Salk Institute made equally significant and interesting discoveries. Mice, who were grouped by a variety of activities, demonstrated differences in brain growth. After six weeks mice who swam, played or were active within their cages showed little difference. However, those who ran on a wheel for hours daily exhibited remarkable cell growth. Henriete van Praag, author of the study, said, "The brain may be more capable of self repair than we think."
"Time may make you older, but perhaps workouts make you wiser."
Americans are pessimistic about their health. The Harvard School of Public Health found through a survey that most people believe their risks of injury, disease, or death to be considerably higher than actual figures. Some examples of those mistaken beliefs are seen in the following beliefs:
Breast cancer 40% 10%
Prostate cancer 33%
Scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health claim that we are focused on the wrong factors. Smoking, inactivity and obesity are much more significant risks.
An epidemiological study of over 3000 Japanese Americans in Hawaii found a correlation between a strong handclasp in middle age and overall fitness 30 years later. (Guralnik, Jack M., 1998) In re-examining the same men recently, NIH researchers found that compared to those with weaker grips, others were more capable of walking, lifting, and self care.
Guralnik identified a "deadly spiral" in more than 1000 women. Those who lost muscle decreased their activity. This further weakened them and led to disability in many. Hence, women especially should build and maintain muscel with resistance training.
Epidemiologists at Harvard (Giovannucci, Edward, 1998), examined the correlation between the incidence of cancer and tomato consumption. Giovannucci found high blood levels of lycopene in tomato eaterrs, with a 40% lower risk of cancer. While its role in deterring cancer is unknown, lycopene is recognized to be twice as potent an antioxidant as beta-carotene. Lycopene is best absorbed as cooked tomatoes.
Working more hours is a good predictor for moving up the corporate ladder, right? WRONG! McDermid, a family studies researcher at Purdue studied the work careers of more than 80 women. He found that more than a third of those who had cut an average of 18 hours off their work week were promoted after the cutback. McDermid surmised that companies were more flexible with schedules to retain skilled workers.
A study of more than 2000 Medicare patients with ulcers revealed that only half had been screened for a bacterium, Helicobacter pylori, which accounts for more than 80% of ulcers. A simple blood, breath, or stool test can inexpensively and easily identify the bacteria. Treatment of an antibiotic and antacid for two weeks can successfully cure the condition. Unfortunately, these tests are less frequently administered.
Austin, C. D. (1991). Aging well: What are the odds? Generations. 15(1), 73-75.
Bearon, Lucille (1996). Successful Aging: What Does the Good Life Look Like? The Forum, vol. 1. No. 3.
Bond, L. A., S. J. Cutler, and A. Grams (1995). Promoting Successful and Productive Aging. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
Generations, In-depth view of Issues in Aging: Reasons to Grow Old: Meaning in Later Life. (2000). 23(4) pp. 1-96.
Herzog, A. R. and J. S. House (1991). Productive activities and aging well. Generations. 15 (1), pp.49-54.
Rowe, J.W., and R. L. Kahn (1998) Successful Aging. New York: Pantheon Books.
Schultz, R., and J. Heckhausen (1996). A Life span model of successful aaging. American Psychologist. 51(7), pp. 702-714.
Successful Aging: The Second 50 - on-line article from Monitor on Psychology, a publication of the American Psychological Association, vol. 31, No. 1, Jan. 2000.
Successful Aging: What Does the Good Life Look Like? On-line article by Dr. Lucy Bearon, in The Forum, a publication of North Carolina State University, dedicated to family and consumer issues.