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Successful Aging : Myths & Realities
by Dr. Karen Wolfe

Successful aging is more than the distinction between being sick or not sick. For many years gerontologists were mainly concerned with the distinction between pathologic and nonpathologic states. But absence of disease is not enough. Successful aging is the combination of three key issues:
  1. Low risk of disease and disease-related disability.
  2. High mental and physical functioning.
  3. Active engagement in life.
Have you considered what determines how well we age? How can we maintain optimal physical and mental strength throughout later life?

Research into aging has been revolutionized in the past ten years by the MacArthur Study which created a network of leading research scientists from key fields to determine what aging actually involves. These scientists identified the factors that were enabling vast numbers of people to preserve and even enhance their mental and physical vitality in later life.

In essence, they found that lifestyle choices such as changes in diet, mental stimulation and social connections – more than genes – determine how well we age. These choices can make a difference no matter how late in life they are made.

Let’s first address the top five myths about aging that are in significant conflict with recent scientific data and are far more fiction than fact.
  • MYTH #1
    To be old is to be infirm: Decades of research refute the myth that to be old is to be frail. Between 1982 and 1994, the population over age sixty-five that reported any disability fell from 24.9 per cent to 21.3 percent. Older Americans are generally healthy. Even in advanced old age, an overwhelming majority of the elderly population have little functional disability, and the proportion that is disabled is being whittled away over time. The combination of longer life and less illness is adding life to years as well as years to life.
  • MYTH # 2
    You can’t teach an old dog new tricks - MacArthur research on mental function in old age is encouraging. The fears of age-related loss are often exaggerated. Current estimates are that no more than 10 percent of all elderly people, aged sixty-five to one hundred or more, are Alzheimer’s patients and 50% of those aged seventy-four to eighty-one show no mental decline at all.
  • MYTH # 3
    Age-related changes are irreversible – It is time to dispel the false and discouraging claim that old age is too late for efforts to reduce risk and promote health. Not only can we recover lost function and decrease risk, but also in some cases we can actually increase function beyond our prior level. Research shows that it is almost never too late to bring healthy habits such as smoking cessation, sensible diet and exercise. Making these changes can mark the transition from the risky state we call “usual aging” to the goal we all share: “successful aging”. Here are some facts:
    • The risk of heart disease, stroke and lung cancer begins to fall almost as soon as you quit smoking – no matter how long you have smoked
    • Exercise dramatically increases physical fitness, muscle size and strength in older individuals and resistance exercises enhance bone strength which limits the risk of osteoporosis and fractures of the hip, spine and wrist
  • MYTH # 4
    Genetics determines the rate at which we age – People commonly assume that genes account for the rate at which our body functions decline with advancing age. MacArthur research provides very strong scientific evidence that we are, in large part, responsible for our own old age. We have the powerful capacity to enhance our chance of maintaining high mental and physical ability as we grow older.
  • MYTH # 5
    Older people are unproductive in society – So much of what is considered “productive” in our culture is related to paid work. Much of the “heart” of our society lies in mothers staying home to look after children and the countless volunteer hours individuals spend to contribute to their communities in many ways. Our national statistics ignore a great deal of “productive” activity that keeps our society going. One third of older men and women work for pay and one third work as volunteers in churches, hospitals and other organizations Also, companies that have emphasized recruitment and retention of older workers confirm that older employees meet or surpass expectations, often bringing the added value of increased insight and experience to the work environment.
Now lets look at some of the realities of successful aging. Researchers have been able to identify the following psychological traits associated with successful agers.
  • REALITY #1
    Self-Efficacy – This is a belief in your ability to solve problems as they arise, and to handle continually shifting personal situations. Individuals who exemplify this attitude are more likely to take an active role in maintaining their physical and mental health as they age. Recent research suggests that self-efficacy rises when people take on tasks that are challenging but not overwhelming and who receive enthusiastic support and reassurance from others while working on tasks.
  • REALITY # 2
    Physical Activity – Exercise does more than keep you strong and flexible. It also preserves mental function. Exercise stimulates nerve growth factor, which stimulates growth of new brain cells.
  • REALITY #3
    Mental Activity – Only 10% of those age 65 or older have Alzheimer’s disease. Far more common among older people is a gradual decline in short-term memory. Fortunately, research has shown that this decline can usually be prevented – even reversed – via memory training.
  • REALITY #4
    Social Involvement - For years, researchers have known that strong social support is key to successful aging. The MacArthur researchers were surprised to find that the wrong kind of support can be harmful. People who enjoy lots of emotional support – expressions of affection and encouragement – fare well as they grow older. They tend to stay healthier and have less emotional stress. In contrast, individuals who gets lots of hands-on assistance in which others do for then things they are capable of doing for themselves – gradually fall victim to feelings of “learned helplessness”. Their sense of well being and independence are undermined.
  • REALITY # 5
    Caloric restriction and antioxidants – According to the free radical theory of aging, free radicals age the body from the outside in as well as the inside out. When ultraviolet radiation from the sun hits your skin, it excites a molecule on the skin’s surface that reacts with oxygen in a process called oxidation. Also, our cells use oxygen to react with the food we eat to produce energy. This process of biological oxidation unravels the mystery of cellular aging. The free radicals produced by radiation exposure and through normal energy production in the body – are instrumental in aging. Caloric restriction reduces biological oxidation and free radical production.
For all of us the rewards of successful aging are great and the research available to us now will transform our thinking about the quality of life that is possible to obtain and sustain as we grow older.

Packer, L. & Colman, C (1999) The Antioxidant Miracle : Your Complete Plan for Total health and Healing, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Rowe, J. & Kahn, R. Successful Aging (1998) Random House, Inc. NY

Copyright Dr. Karen Wolfe. All Rights Reserved.

Karen Wolfe is a national and international speaker, author and coach. She is the author of:
  • Medicine From the Inside Out - 7 Keys to Unlock Your Natural Healing Wisdom
  • Menopause - Renewal in Midlife,
  • From Stress to Strength
  • Successful Aging
  • A Wise Woman’s Approach to Healing and Cancer
  • Awaken Your Healer Within
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