Facts and Figures

  Myths and Realities of Aging 2000

  The New England Centenarian Study

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Why Study Successful Aging? 
"The future is a lot like the past . . . only closer"
-- Dan Quisenberry, Former Kansas 
    City Royals Pitcher
Successful Aging

This book has ignited much discussion and interest. Many criticize its medical orientation, and its lack of attention to several factors such as populations who are not able to maintain healthy lifestyles. However, the widespread circulation, marketing, and reading of this book has caught the attention of many that might not ordinarily be interested in aging issues. The findings of the MacArthur Studies, the research basis for the book, bring us all to a more positive and hopeful attitude about being able to age successfully.

Several myths the authors identify and refute are useful in setting the framework for this site. Myths debunked by Rowe and Kahn include:

  • "To be old is to be sick." (Only 5.2% of older persons are in nursing homes, down from 6.3% in 1982. In 1994 of Americans 75-84 years, 73% reported no disability. Moreover, after 85 years 40 percent were fully functional. Even among those over 95 years, disability is decreasing.)
  • "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." (Older persons can and do learn new things well and this learning can be long lasting. However, if they are not challenged, they will perform less.)
  • "The horse is out of the barn." (The effects of overindulgence in alcohol, fatty foods, smoking and lack of exercise can be modified. The risks associated with obesity, smoking, high blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and decreased physical functioning decline almost immediately, regardless of age or length of time the abuses occurred. Likewise, the benefits begin right away despite the age, time or initial damage.)
  • "The secret to successful aging is to choose your parents wisely." (As we grow older, genetics play a less important role while environmental influences increase. Generally, about 1/3 of physical aging and one half of mental function may be attributed to genetics. 
  • "The lights may be on, but the voltage is low." The basic need for affectionate physical contact persists throughout life. Earlier studies found almost 2/3 of 68-year-old men were sexually active and this declined to 25% at age 78 due primarily to health. Sexual activity in older women declines primarily due to unavailable appropriate partners. It is anticipated that current studies will show greater sexual activity overall with age.  See section on Intimacy.
  • "The elderly don't pull their own weight." (Older adults are increasingly choosing to delay retirement. Many are changing their career paths. Still others who have retired choose volunteer work on a regular basis. The unpaid service of volunteerism is difficult to quantify and does not often command the respect of paid work, but is dramatic in its contribution to society.
      • (Rowe & Kahn, 1998)
Successful aging should be a topic of interest for all of us. We are living longer and healthier, and most of us can expect to live into our eighties. Curent research and book publications are drawing attention to how we can age well.
  • The MacArthur Studies were the basis for Successful Aging by Rowe and Kahn (1998).
  • A study, Myths and Realities of Aging 2000, by the National Council on the Aging (NCOA) has refuted stereotypes and attitudes about and by older adults.
  • Thomas Perls and Margery Hutter Silver reported the results of their study, The New England Centenarian Study, in their book, Living to 100: Lessons in Living to your Maximum Potential at Any Age (1999).
Facts and Figures

Several facts and trends related to aging successfully have inspired research efforts and gained the attention of businesses and the public. These projections compel us to find out how we can age successfully!

  • 13% of our population is over 65 years. In 2040, this proportion will grow to 20%.
  • Today, four out of five persons can expect to live at least 65 years, three times as many as in 1900.
  • For those who reach 65, there is a greater than 50% chance to live past 80 years. (Women at 65 can expect to live an additional 19.2 years, and men, 15.5 years.)  (AARP, 1997).
  • Life expectancy is now 76 years, compared to 47 years in 1900.
  • In a study by Brandeis University 70% of women over 65 years reported their health to be good.
  • The "old-old" --  over 85 -- are the fastest growing segment of the population, now 10% of those over 65 years.
  • Today's 85 year-olds are likely to live past 90 years.
  • Recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2/4/98), a study found that 80-year-olds would rather live longer in their current state of health than a shorter life in excellent health. This surprised family surrogates who predicted a choice of shorter life of higher quality.
  • There may be as many as 60,000 centenarians living today and by 2040 this number will at least double
  • The incidence of chronic disease in older adults is declining.
  • More than 90% of non-instutionalized persons over 70 years are able to perform one or more activities of daily living (ADLs), according to a recent study.
Myths and Realities of Aging 2000

In March 2000 the National Council on the Aging (NCOA) reported the results of a survey of more than 3000 adults of all ages. These findings presented a startling contrast to NCOA's 1974 Myths and Realities survey. These 2000 "realities" refute many of the myths about older adults that have persisted. In fact, these findings shed a new and more positive light on the attitudes of younger persons about older adults and older adults about themselves.

The following surprising and optimistic findings help answer the question, "Why Study Successful Aging?"

  • 84% of all aged Americans reported being happy if they lived to 90 years.
  • Most Americans characterize the present as the "best years" of their lives.
  • 66% of all ages -- 44% of those 70 years and older, and 33% of those 80 years and older -- felt these were their best years.
  • Most persons of color over 65 years considered these the best years of their lives (60% of African Americans and 57% of Hispanics).
  • A "specific" age no longer indicates the onset of old age or the time of retirement.
  • The concept of middle age extends past 70 years (45% of those between 65 and 69 years and 1/3 of those over 70 years consider themselves to be middle-aged.
  • More than 3/4 of persons under 65 years feel that older adults deserve more respect and benefits.
  • While younger persons perceive problems such as loneliness and financial woes more significant to older adults, worries of crime, finances and personal health actually diminished over the past 25 years among the older population.
  • Three quarters of persons over 65 years report that 75-year-old men and women are potentially "sexy" and validate the importance of sexual relationships in later life.
The New England Centenarian Study

Several lessons to be learned from this study give us reason for an optimistic view of later life success.

  • A positive attitude about age: seeing it as an opportunity, NOT a limitation.
  • Most of us have the genetic potential to live 85 years. Prudent health measure will better our chances of living to 100 and make the most of our "healthy" years.
  • Exercise, especially weight resistance, is significant to our health and "feeling well."
  • "Use it or lose it" is not an old cliche' -- keeping mentally active and seeking different and new activities is key to a successful old age.
  • Moderate eating -- take in low fats and sugars , be generous with fruits and vegetables, and take vitamin supplements.
  • Eliminate stress.
      • (Perls and Hutter Silver, 1999). 
For more information on recent studies, go to:

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