How do you define success?
Here are a few famous responses to this question:
- “Success is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”—Winston Churchill
- “Success is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.”—Jim Rohn
No matter the arena (personal, professional, financial), success is often equated with achievement. A successful lawyer wins the majority of the cases she takes on; a successful investment banker makes a lot of money for his firm.
Redefining the idea of effective aging
What happens when you apply the concept of success to something as complex and individualized as the aging process?
“There are several different definitions of successful aging,” says Dilip Jeste, M.D., Director of the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging and President of the American Psychiatric Association. “Traditional ‘objective’ definitions [of aging] have emphasized absence of physical and cognitive disabilities.”
Jeste and his colleagues recently conducted a study that turns these “traditional” definitions upside down.
After surveying more than 1,000 older adults, researchers discovered that, when it comes to aging, it’s not how fast you can run, or whether you can complete the New York Times crossword puzzle that makes you a success—it’s your attitude that really counts.
“The most surprising result we found was the paradox of aging—i.e., as physical health declined with aging, self-rated successful aging scores seemed to increase,” Jeste says. “Our findings showed that physical health was neither necessary nor sufficient for feeling good about one’s own aging.”
In fact, many seniors who were grappling with physical or mental decline said they felt that their overall wellbeing was increasing with each passing year.
How to gracefully get older
Once you’ve discovered what it means to age “successfully,” the question becomes: How do you do it?
Jeste’s recipe for effective aging includes three ingredients: resilience (the ability to adapt and persevere in the face of hardship), optimism (being able to recognize both the good and the bad in a given situation) and the absence of depression.
He provides a few strategies for approaching the aging process in a productive way:
Be logical: It’s important to strike a balance between pessimism and unrealistic optimism, says Jeste. For instance, if you have cancer, you won’t be able to cure yourself simply by thinking happy thoughts. Instead, seek out the treatment options that are right for you and remain confident that they will help you.
Seek support: A support network of friends and family is essential for maintaining mental and emotional wellbeing, especially as you age. Social support provides a stalwart shield against disease-causing stress of all kinds.
Tame tension: Whether it’s taking a walk, practicing yoga or reading a book, make sure to regularly engage in activities that you find enjoyable. Taking a break from the pressure and strain of everyday life is essential for building your resilience reserves.
Manage depression: About one in ten American adults suffer from depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Women age 45-64 have a higher risk of developing the symptoms of depression, including: excessive fatigue, irritability, feeling hopeless, loss of interest in hobbies and suicidal tendencies. According to Jeste, recognizing and managing depression in adults is vitally important to maintaining good mental and physical health as you age. Consult with a doctor if you feel you or your loved one may be depressed.
The idea that some elements of aging are controllable is a positive one for Jeste, who is optimistic about the future of growing old in America.
“Over the next three decades, we will witness the largest increase in the number of people over age 65 in the history of mankind,” he says. “Our study suggests that an increasing number of these older adults can be productive and contribute to our society in many ways.”
By Anne-Marie Botek, AgingCare.com Editor