What Is Successful Aging? Key Areas of Focus

According to John Rowe & Robert Kahn, who wrote a highly influential set of papers and a bestselling book on the topics surrounding aging – successful aging can be defined as “high physical, psychological, and social functioning in old age without major diseases.”

Key takeaways:
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    Exercise is a “fountain of youth” and can be a powerful tool in managing depression and preventing cognitive decline.
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    Emotional flexibility and active engagement in late life are normal and healthy.
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    Maintaining a normal weight is important in early and midlife and can set you up for healthy aging in late life.
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    Managing depression and social isolation in older adulthood using practical, active approaches can be beneficial for cognitive functioning.

Theories of successful aging

The first contemporary theory of aging was called the ‘Disengagement Theory’. It was based on the idea that aging is characterized by, “an inevitable mutual withdrawal or disengagement resulting in decreased interaction between the aging person and others in the social system he belongs to.”

One of the more notable things about Disengagement Theory is that almost as soon as it was broadcast it was dispensed with. The theory painted aging in a negative light which is probably why it wasn’t well received.

Later theories emerged as counter-narratives:

Activity theory

Advanced in 1963 by Robert Havighurst as the idea that instead of disengagement, successful aging was all about active engagement in a variety of social roles.

Continuity theory

Atchley’s continuity theory took this a step further by positing that as we age successfully, we apply internal and external structures as well as strategies learned from earlier life to later life – creating continuity between the past and the future.

A modern take on aging successfully

Ultimately one of the most useful theories of aging – and aging successfullyis Baltes & Baltes' Selective Optimization with Compensation (SOC) Theory. The idea behind SOC theory is that for an older adult to age successfully they must first engage in:

  • Selection – where they develop and elaborate relevant personal goals.
  • Optimization – where they devote time, energy, and resources to refining skills towards the accomplishment of these goals.
  • Compensation – where they actively make use of an alternative behavioral repertoire to satisfy goals in the face of physical, functional, or cognitive losses.

SOC theory and “successful aging” process

Physical fitness is commonly enjoyed by many older adults. It has practical implications such as the ability to walk for pleasure and to move freely around the home and into the neighborhood. This freedom of movement is something we often take for granted.

If an elderly person were to fall, and as a result needed to use a walking stick to be able to continue their freedom and ease of movement, there could be two possible outcomes. One outcome may feature SOC theory and the other may involve an inflexible attitude that does not promote successful aging.

The SOC approach would be to reframe the use of the cane. Instead of it being a hindrance, the cane would be seen as a tool that facilitated independence.

An inflexible approach would be to look at the cane as something which made the person feeble. A proud and stoic person might forgo the use of the cane and eventually fall many times, resulting in the need for a wheelchair - further limiting their independence.

Using SOC theory we can see that the approach lends itself to positivity and a healthy outlook for the future. Adapting to change and being emotionally flexible around making new accommodations is a key element of successful aging.

Practical approaches for successfully aging

Along with active engagement in life and the mental and emotional flexibility noted above, there are a few key areas of focus for successful aging:

Physical

Truly the “fountain of youth” for aging. For brain health, keeping up with a regular program of cardiovascular exercise is critical for maintaining cognitive functioning in old age. Cardiovascular exercise, such as brisk walking for 30 minutes a day, 4-5 times a week, may rival some common FDA-approved medications for dementia. A medically appropriate regular exercise typically has only positive side effects too.

People who exercise regularly are also less likely to suffer from depression symptoms. A 2021 study of approximately 350 older adults randomized to either antidepressant therapy or an exercise program showed improvements in symptoms of depression.

Maintaining a healthy weight helps to maintain cognitive functioning later in life. Obesity in early and midlife can cause accumulated damage due to the negative metabolic effects associated with it, such as hypertension (high blood pressure), hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol), and diabetes (uncontrolled swings in blood sugar).

Interestingly, older adults who carry a little more weight have a lowered risk of issues with cognitive impairment compared to their normal or underweight counterparts. This is likely due to the ‘extra reserves’ acting protectively against infections and major injury.

Emotional

Clinical depression appears to be less likely in older adults overall. However, subsyndromal depression which doesn’t meet the full criteria for a major depressive episode is more likely in older adults.

If depression is a problem for an older adult, the first approach for mild to moderate depression symptoms is typically psychotherapy. Unlike in younger adults, behaviorally-oriented approaches to addressing depression and maintaining a positive mood and outlook are preferred over trying medications first.

The kind of psychotherapy preferred for older adults is focused on practical, behavioral interventions. Problem-solving therapy and behavioral activation emphasize active engagement in pleasurable and meaningful activities for the patient.

Social

Older adults do need to be mindful that the scaling back of social networks can lead to isolation. Not engaging with others has been shown to increase symptoms of depression. Lack of meaningful social networks in late life even seems to provide an additional risk factor for suffering from later neurocognitive impairment.

However, it’s interesting and worth noting that as people age, the way they navigate their social networks changes too. Older adults tend to engage in socio-emotional selectivity. Rather than having a large social network, older adults prioritize a small number of quality friendships and associations.

Concluding thoughts

Being mindful and aware of diet, exercise, and body weight is one of the key routes to avoiding the negative traits associated with aging. Physical activity is of paramount importance, helping to prevent or reduce symptoms of dementia and depression.

Try not to worry if the overall size of your social network shrinks as you get older. This is a natural part of aging and having a few closer, more meaningful, and more satisfying relationships can be more beneficial than having lots of casual acquaintances. As long as you stay engaged in activities that feel meaningful and nourishing to you, you’ll be doing wonders for your health and well-being.

We’ve come a long way from regarding aging as a process of negative decline. Successful aging can be achieved through a balance of remaining engaged with your mind and body, working on emotional flexibility, and staying socially active with quality pursuits.

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