Successful Aging: A Lifestyle Choice

The MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging in America found far more positive aspects to aging than negative ones, in their landmark 1998 study. Their findings punctured the widespread belief that aging inevitably brings disability, disease and decreased mental function. Thanks to these advances in gerontological research, scientists and the general population now have an evidence-based definition of optimum aging, along with the data showing us how to achieve it.

Results from the ten-year-long study of several thousand men and women have been published in the book <i>Successful Aging.</i> It is authored by two of the researchers in the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Aging: John W. Rowe, M.D., President of Mount Sinai Hospital and School of Medicine in New York, NY., and Robert L. Kahn, Ph.D., professor of Psychology and Public Health at the University of Michigan.

Successful aging appears to depend primarily on the ability to maintain three key behaviors or characteristics: low risk of disease and disease-related disability, high mental and physical function and active engagement with life.

The first health behavior can be achieved through not smoking, moderate drinking, low-fat diet and regular aerobic and light weight-bearing activity. Regular exercise also plays a role in the second characteristic, as does at least four hours a day of work where independent judgment is involved. These activities include work -- either paid or volunteer, or problem-solving activities such as reading, garden design or arts and crafts making. Close personal relationships with friends and family and continued involvement in productive activities constitute "active engagement with life." In fact, the authors repeatedly state that maintaining substantial friendships and "talking things out" literally keep the aging body vital.

While the MacArthur study found that genes play a key role in promoting disease, the most profound revelation turned out to be that heredity is less powerful than scientists previously assumed. In other words, genes decide less than half of one's destiny. This is celebratory news, indeed, for those with family histories of certain cancers, heart disease, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis and many other conditions. According to the study, development of all but the most strongly determined genetic diseases, such as Huntington's disease, can be delayed, or perhaps completely eliminated, by environment and diet, exercise, stress management, medication and other lifestyle choices.More breakthrough findingsshow that it is almost never too late to begin benefitting from healthy habits such as smoking cessation, sensible diet and exercise. For example, the risk of heart disease drops when you quit smoking regardless of your age, the length of time you smoked or how heavy a smoker you are. Age-related changes are reversible, and we can recover much lost function and decrease health risks. Many of the "agers" studied exceeded their prior level of functioning.Scientists also found that the aged brain is fully capable of significant and permanent improvements in cognitive functions. What this means is that education should be a lifelong process. Mental strength and agility can be cultivated by participation in weekly reading groups, attending adult education classes, checking out foreign language instruction tapes and texts from the library or taking up complex hobbies such as model-building or genealogy.
Another key element that helps promote mental ability is self-efficacy, or the belief that one can solve specific problems, meet various challenges and otherwise master life. The MacArthur scientists say that this kind of self-esteem is invaluable to successful aging. While the study found that older people with low self-efficacy tend to believe that memory is strictly an age-related skill that inevitably atrophies as people grow older, those high in self-efficacy are more likely to view memory as a cognitive skill that can be indefinitely cultivated and improved. The negative agers who, believing that memory is out of their control, become increasingly resigned and unmotivated may be programming their mental and physical decline.In addition to learning how regular physical exercise is critical to determining older people's physical status, researchers were surprised and pleased to find that mental ability and social relationships were also key factors in elder fitness. Those who had higher mental function were also more likely to retain physical function.In adiscovery new to medical literature, the researchers found that the frequent emotional support is strongly related to the likelihood of enhanced physical function over time. In other words, a dynamic and warm emotional life promotes optimum physical health.
Fully one quarter of the "successful agers" studied improved their physical function over the eight years studied. More than half maintained their previous high level of function. "This dramatic finding," the authors write, "clearly debunks the myth that losses in physical function are an inevitable part of advancing age."Noting that only 5.2 per cent of older people in the United States live in nursing homes, the study also provides a panoramic view of how productive older people really are. Most important, the data makes clear that severe physical decline does not have to happen to anyone. Among those fifty-five years of age or older, more than four out of ten report at least 1,500 hours of productive activity during the year. In addition, most older people help family and friends or do unpaid volunteer work. The report concludes that "doing" for others is one of the most effective anti-aging potions known to science, for it infuses people with vitality, purpose, happiness and health to heretofore unrecognized degrees.
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