There's something attractive to most people about putting right that which is wrong. We want to fix things. This attraction leads many people into lives of science, medicine and other areas where research to help those with diseases has a strong draw. These are good people. They want to make a difference in the world and combat diseases that rob people of their health.
However, there's the other angle. Yes, it's maybe not as exciting to study people who are in great shape and enjoying life, as there's nothing to fix. One can't be the hero and come up with a solution to a problem that's not there. However, gradually researchers are seeing the importance of studying this angle, as well. Studying how those who have remained healthy and vital into their later years is gaining momentum and these studies could lead to as much information as studying what is wrong. I recently wrote about the 90+Study in " Lucid Old Age: What Do Those Who Keep Sharp Do Right?" This study, as the title suggests, looks at people who are termed "very old" and what they do to keep their minds sharp.
Another study, recently published in the journal Neurology and reported on by Newswise in an article titled, "Staying Sharp: New Study Uncovers How People Maintain Cognitive Function in Old Age" concentrates on what people do right, but it follows a younger age group. This study, which followed 2,500 people, all in their 70s, tested their cognitive skills three times over the year
Consistent with the 90+ Study, remaining socially active was high on the list of those who retained their sharpness. Also, "...people who exercise at least once a week, have at least a high school education and a ninth grade literacy level, are not smokers" did very well. In keeping with the socially active element, the study found that, "...people working or volunteering and people who report living with someone are 24 percent more likely to maintain cognitive function in late life."
The term "successful aging" is being used liberally by scientists involved in studies of this type. I like that term. We all get older. Nearly all of us will find a wrinkle here, an achy joint there, and the frustration of slower recall time due to a brain filled with facts - essential and non-essential - are constant reminders that we are aging. However, none of these issues detracts noticeably from quality of life unless we let it. There's much to be said about attitude.
In keeping with this study, perhaps the trend toward later retirement (whether by choice or necessity) isn't a bad thing. And for those who are lucky enough to choose, if they choose retirement, many successful agers throw themselves into volunteering to help those less fortunate. I've seen a great deal of that in nursing homes with vital 75-year-olds coming into the home to push wheelchairs and help feed their less fortunate spouses, or even total strangers. I've seen such people become "adopted" grandparents to children not fortunate enough to have grandparents nearby. I've seen them flipping pancakes for fundraisers, and running races to benefit MS and other charities.
These folks have chosen some healthy habits that have helped them age successfully. They also, perhaps, are fortunate enough to have the right genes. Some things we can't change (such as our genetic makeup) and some we can. When we read these studies on successful aging, we should be paying attention. While there are no guarantees, staying away from smoking, keeping our weight in a healthy area, getting regular physical exercise, and extending ourselves to help others enjoy a better life are choices we can make.
Many people do all of these things well, and they are still struck down with Alzheimer's disease, strokes and other devastating ailments. But researchers are compiling statistics that illuminate the dusky path toward successful aging. We'd do ourselves (and families) a favor if we pay attention. Then, no matter how "successful" or "unsuccessful" we are at the aging game, at least we'd know we tried.
Published On: June 16, 2009