Today there are about 40 million Americans over the age of 65 and the fastest-growing segment of the population is over 80. Yet aging continues to be discussed as a period of declining physical and cognitive skills, a time when people's backs are said to go out more than they do. But this negative view of aging contrasts with results of comprehensive research involving more than 1,000 older adults showing that people actually enjoy greater well-being as they age.
"It was clear to us that, even in the midst of physical or cognitive decline, individuals in our study reported feeling that their well-being had improved with age," said principal investigator Dilip V. Jeste, MD, director of UC San Diego's Stein Institute for Research on Aging, and the current President of the American Psychiatric Association (which was not involved in this study).
Jeste told Huff/Post50 he was surprised to find that physical health was not necessary to feel good about yourself as you grow older. "The usual notion is that physically disabled people are unhappy," he said. "In our study, older adults had more physical disability and somewhat more memory/cognitive impairment) than younger adults -- as one would expect.
"But what was unexpected was that the older adults had higher scores on self-rated successful aging. Thus, physical health and perception of one's successful aging went in opposite directions," he added. "In other words, factors other than physical health seemed to contribute significantly to subjective success in aging. These factors were psychological -- i.e. resilience and absence of depression."
For the study, researchers from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and Stanford University conducted 25-minute phone interviews followed by comprehensive mail-in surveys as part of a Successful Aging Evaluation study. Participants were aged between 50 and 99, with an average age of just over 77.
After adjusting for age, a higher self-rating of successful aging was linked to higher education, better cognitive function, better perceived physical and mental health, less depression, and greater optimism and resilience.
Participants were asked to rate the extent to which they thought they had "successfully aged," using a 10-point scale and using their own concept of the term. The study found that people with low physical fitness but high resilience had self-ratings of successful aging akin to those of physical healthy people with low resilience. Likewise, the self-ratings of those with low physical functioning but little or no depression had scores comparable to those of physically healthy people with moderate to severe depression.
So, if someone is not feeling good about themselves as they age, is there something they could do to feel better?
Jeste said the first step would be to treat any depression. The next would be to enhance resilience.
"Research on interventions to enhance resilience are still in developmental stages; however, data show that resilience can be increased. And increased resilience reduces stress and thereby enhances overall functioning (including that of the brain and the mind), leading to better feeling of success in aging," Jeste said. "In summary, successful aging is possible even for people with physical illnesses and disability if depression is treated or prevented, and resilience is enhanced."
Jeste suggests there's a take-away message for clinicians, which is that being more optimistic in the care of seniors may help reduce societal ageism. "There is considerable discussion In public forums about the financial drain on the society due to rising costs of healthcare for older adults -- what some people disparagingly label the 'silver tsunami.' But, successfully aging older adults can be a great resource for younger generations," he said.
The findings also point to a key role for psychiatry in enhancing successful aging in older adults. "Perfect physical health is neither necessary nor sufficient," Jeste said. "There is potential for enhancing successful aging by fostering resilience and treating or preventing depression."
Earlier on HuffPost50:
Health was "extremely important" to happiness for 73 percent of respondents. People in "good or excellent" health are three times more likely to report being "very" happy. Interestingly, what may matter most is how healthy you <em>think</em> you are: The AARP found that the percentage of people reporting good health is relatively stable over the 35-80 age range, varying only seven percentage points. That's despite the fact that objectively, older people are in fact not as healthy: The number of people who report they are suffering two or more medical conditions increased 400 percent over the 35-80 age range. (People may be comparing their health to their peers who are in worse shape.)
Some 68 percent of respondents called relationships "extremely important" to happiness. Some 72 percent of people who were married or in a relationship called themselves "very happy" or "pretty happy" -- compared to 60 percent of singles. AARP asked respondents to rank the importance of certain activities to happiness, and many of those scoring at the top were relationship-related: 72 percent said "kissing or hugging someone you love"; 72 percent said "watching your children, grandchildren or close relative succeed in what they want to do"; 69 percent said "spending time with your family and friends such as a meal or social gathering'; and 64 percent said "experiencing a special moment with a child." However, relationships did have to be real: "connecting with friends or family on a social media site like Facebook" came in 37th out of 38 activities in contributing to happiness.
Nearly half (47 percent) of respondents said pleasure was "extremely important" to happiness. Among the simple pleasures that were most important to the happiness of people 50 to 80: enjoying natural beauty like a sunset or ocean (64 percent); having someone do something nice for you unexpectedly (56 percent); practicing religious or spiritual faith (50 percent); making progress on personal goals (47%); and being absorbed in a favorite hobby or interest (42 percent).
Four in ten of those surveyed called accomplishment "extremely important" to happiness.
Meaning And Engagement
Meaning and engagement were considered "extremely important" to happiness among 38 and 37 percent of respondents, respectively.
Some 31 percent of respondents said money was "extremely important" to happiness. Money was slightly more important to people who earned $25,000 or less. As psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman has noted, <a href="http://www.moneyandhappiness.com/blog/?p=1053" target="_hplink">beyond a household income of $75,000, experienced well-being no longer increases</a>, although people's judgment of how satisfied they are with their lives does continue to increase. At the same time, severe poverty amplifies life's misfortunes, such as illness or divorce. The AARP study found similar results: Income and happiness were positively correlated; when comparing the percentage of those "Very Happy" by income ranges, the slope increases up to the $75,000 mark, then continued to rise even more dramatically. Asked how they would spend $100 on something to increase happiness, most respondents said they would spend it on their family or going out to dinner. This correlates with findings that show <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090207150518.htm" target="_hplink">buying experiences makes people happier than buying things</a>.
A Sense Of Control Over Happiness
People who feel they are in control of their happiness report that they are 2.5 times happier than those who believe happiness is out of their control. A sense of control is linked to higher income, higher education, good health and not experiencing a major life event in the past year. This finding also mirrors decades of research suggesting <a href="http://moneyandhappiness.com/get_happy.htm" target="_hplink">autonomy -- the feeling that your actions are self-chosen and self-endorsed</a> -- is a core psychological need. Studies have found people who lack a sense of control -- prisoners, nursing home residents, people living under totalitarian governments -- suffer lower morale and poor health, according to David Myers, a professor at Hope College in Michigan and author of "The Pursuit of Happiness." Interestingly, a sense of control over one's happiness rises with age -- with 69 percent of people age 75 to 80 feeling they have control over their happiness, versus about half of people age 40 to 54. It may be that with the wisdom of the years, people recognize that happiness is a choice.
Spending time with a pet can be a substantial way to contribute to one's happiness, the survey found, especially for older women: 81 percent of women age 66 to 80 who own pets said spending time with them contributes "a lot" to personal happiness. It was also important to two-thirds of singles.