aging well

Some advice on successful aging from experts.

We start aging the minute we are born. Age demographics have changed enormously in the past century in the U.S. – from being a pyramid with the young at the bottom and old at the top to a rectangle that reflects an enormous surge in life expectancy. By 2015 there were more people in the U.S. over the age of 60 than under the age of 15.

Genes account for ¼ – ⅓ of longevity. The rest is probably up to us. You know the drill – eat right, exercise, don’t smoke and get enough sleep. There is another practice, however, that is equally important – psychological fitness. This is one’s social, intellectual and spiritual connections. A study of people over 100 years old showed that they all had a purpose in life like volunteer work or taking care of grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

Would you believe that older people are actually happier than younger people? Recent studies by longevity researchers show that people become more positive and happier as they age. This is surprising because old age is tough, there is a lot of loss, and people’s worlds tend to become smaller and smaller as they are able to do less, if my 95 year-old mother is any example. Abilities, people, places and things seem to be constantly taken away from the elderly yet it appears that as time goes on people actually become happier.

Robert Waldinger is the 4th director of The Harvard Study of Adult Development. It is the longest study of adult life to date. It covers 75 years during which they have tracked the lives of 724 men. The clearest result that comes from the study is that good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Loneliness kills. Social connections help us live longer. Isolated people who don’t want to be isolated have loneliness that turns toxic. That being said, relationships need to be good quality to be beneficial. High conflict is terrible for our health. Good, warm relationships are protective, and these relationships can be with co-workers, a significant other, good friends or family. People who retired successfully were those who actively replaced workmates with new playmates. Family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges. See Robert Waldinger’s TED Talk.

How to stay engaged with others after retirement –

  • Find a part-time job
  • Join volunteer groups or a club with your interests – golf, quilting, swimming
  • Give dinner parties
  • Spend time with friends and family
  • Spruce up your house
  • Take up a hobby
  • Use your expertise to guide others
  • Play with children
  • Exercise, get outdoors and stay fit
  • Watch or read things that make you laugh

Laura Carstensen is the Founding Director of the Stanford University Center on Longevity. She has a wonderful TED Talk called “Older People Are Happier”.

aging-well-laura-carstensens-ted-talk“In the 20th century we added an unprecedented number of years to our lifespans, but is the quality of life as good? Surprisingly, yes!” Psychologist Laura Carstensen shows research that demonstrates that as people get older they become happier, more content, and have a more positive outlook on the world. This is because aging brings some improvements – increased knowledge, expertise, and improved emotional aspects of life.

aging-well-laura-carstensen

The fact that aging is not for sissies, as the saying goes, is called the paradox of aging. Ms. Carstensen did a study over a 10-year period that looked at how people’s emotional experience changed as they aged. The study’s participants were aged 18 to 94. The result was that people were more positive as they aged. They found that over time people experience fewer negative emotions but the same positive emotions. She says “recognizing that we won’t live forever changes our perspective on life in positive ways”. As we get older, our goals change, we savor life, we prioritize our time and focus on the aspects of life that matter most. Older people are more positive but they definitely also have moments of poignancy. Ms. Carstensen ends her TED Talk by saying that we need to get better at using the experience of our older population. It will lead to a better society.

age-well-graph-from-lauea-carstenses2Researchers report that older people engage with sadness more comfortably, they solve emotional conflicts better, they view injustice with compassion not despair. They focus on positive information, not negative. They have greater enjoyment and satisfaction from life. The more mentally alert and sharp older people are the more positive they are. Why? The changes towards the positive come from the ability to monitor time. The paradox of aging is recognizing that we won’t live forever and that changes our perspective on life and the time remaining. People over 50 prioritize how they spend their time. They don’t go on blind dates, or spend time with people they don’t like. They take less notice of trivial matters. They are more open to reconciliation, and are appreciative. They have less tolerance for injustice.

Two other perspectives on aging from Isabel Allende and Norman Lear:

“We all feel younger than we are because our spirit never ages. Aging is an attitude. Say ‘yes’ to life, whatever comes your way – good and bad. It’s all part of life.”

See Isabel Allende’s TED talk – “How to live passionately – no matter your age”.

“I believe in two small and important words in the English language — over and next. When something is over, it’s over. When I fall asleep, that day is concluded. I’m on to coffee, the taste of tomorrow morning’s coffee. And I think that if you see a connection between over and next, that’s what is meant by ‘living in the moment’. At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, I really do see it that way. Living this moment is what we have. You don’t know about the next.”

An interview with Norman Lear at age 93 – ‘Over’ and ‘Next’