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The Unexpected Secret to Successful Aging

The Unexpected Secret to Successful Aging


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,  Editor  connects family  caregivers and provides support, resources, expert advice and senior housing  options for people caring for their elderly parents. is a trusted  resource that visitors rely on every day to find inspiration, make informed  decisions, and ease the stress of caregiving.

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