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The “successful aging” debate


We see it everyday in advertising, turn back the clock, reverse aging — look, feel, and be younger. With all these standards, how do you define aging, or more importantly successful aging. Scholars have long debated what successful aging is, how to measure it, and how to promote it. But researchers are now laying the groundwork for building consensus on the topic — while pointing out that the answer may differ among academics and the general public, as well as across populations and demographic groups.

“With an enhanced understanding of what successful aging is, we will be in a stronger position to develop interventions that will enable more people to age successfully,” stated Rachel Pruchno, PhD.

“The sheer number of people comprising the baby boom generation transformed academic interest in successful aging to a public policy imperative. Now more than ever, it is critical to develop science that empowers people to experience the best old age possible.”

The topic of successful aging reached new heights of popularity following a 1987 study by John W. Rowe, MD, and Robert L. Kahn, PhD, titled “Human Aging: Usual and Successful,” which appeared in Science. They followed up with a subsequent article in The Gerontologist(and later book) titled “Successful Aging.”

Their work helped the field of gerontology evolve from one arguably fixated on loss to one characterized by heterogeneity — or quality of life and the potential for growth. In the latter piece, they wrote that “successful aging is multidimensional, encompassing the avoidance of disease and disability, the maintenance of high physical and cognitive function, and sustained engagement in social and productive activities.”

Now, through a series of 16 articles, top researchers in the field have looked back at the progress made over the past 28 years — and whether or not Rowe and Kahn’s analysis is still relevant. Some of the authors even suggest that the concept of successful aging should be abandoned, pointing to social inequalities and the problems associated with labeling a person as an “unsuccessful ager.”

The issue includes a number of groundbreaking studies involving several segments of the U.S. population. For example, one of the articles reports on the first study to examine physical and mental health quality of life among the older LGBT population. Another entry uses queer theory to explore the experiences of transgender persons who contemplate or pursue a gender transition later in life. A further article addresses the growing body of literature suggesting that black women experience a number of social challenges that may present as barrier to aging successfully. Together, they demonstrate the necessity for gerontological theory to address how social, cultural, behavioral, and environmental constructs affect physical health and psychological well-being while guiding policy, health care services, and research among diverse racial and gendered populations.

They also contains articles examining successful aging across cultures. It reports that young, middle-aged, and older lay persons from the U.S. and Germany have quite similar concepts of successful aging, which they view in far more multidimensional terms than do established scientific theories. This demonstrates that laypersons’ views of successful aging pose scientific challenges because they include a much wider variety of factors than are considered in most theoretical models. A separate study examines labor force participation rates and life expectancy among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development Countries — and finds that member nations with older adults who remain active in a paid work capacity tend to have elders who live longer.

“Nearly three decades after Rowe and Kahn’s initial article was published, it is incumbent on gerontologists to use the conceptual and empirical knowledge base that now exists to develop consensus about what successful aging is and how it should be measured,” Pruchno wrote.

“We should approach this goal knowing that our measures will not be perfect, but at least our findings will be comparable. Advancing this work will help us learn how individuals can experience successful aging regardless of their social or health conditions.”

Want to find out more about successful aging? Well, the full article is available to read for free here. While I’m still not sure if there should be a definition of “successful aging,” having a set of criteria for what constitutes aging successfully can be beneficial to medical professionals who know what the criteria actually mean and more importantly, why you should, or should not, worry about falling in that category.

Various (2015). Successful Aging: Contentious Past, Productive Future The Gerontologist, 55 (1), 1-4 DOI: 10.1093/geront/gnv002

2 responses

  1. I am currently reading Atul Gawande’s book “Being Mortal” which focuses exactly on this topic of aging. I think in future conversations about successful aging, we need to talk about the shortcomings of the healthcare system in treating elderly patients and how end-of-life treatments are discussed and managed.

    February 16, 2015 at 7:59 am

    • That’s a great point. Everyone is worried about getting older without the emphasis on actual treatment of the aging. Thank you for the comment and I think I’ll have to take a look at that book.

      February 16, 2015 at 4:23 pm

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