Can you define a “well-aged” wine or cheese?
How about a “well-aged” life?
That becomes a little more difficult!
Medical science gives us various ‘aging well’ standards.
Some standards emphasize physical ability. Others emphasize social activity. And still others emphasize cognitive strength.
If you had to set a standard, what would you emphasize?
There are two main measurement categories for aging well. One group of measurements uses objective biomedical standards. The second uses subjective socio-psychological standards.
The objective standards measure you against the average of what is expected at your age. The subjective standards take a more personal approach.
Aging Well – Against the Average
Taking a Biomedical Perspective
Biomedical standards compare individuals to an expected path of decline. If you do better or last longer than the average, you are aging successfully. The standard is objective. For example, if the average lifespan in your country is 83 and you are 85, by this definition you are aging well.
This may be a simplistic way to measure a complex process, but it is simple and straightforward. The answer is either yes or no.
The five most common biomedical measurements used in measuring successful aging are:
First. The presence or absence of chronic disease. If you are free of a chronic disease, you are aging well. A chronic disease like diabetes, for example, would be considered a problem for aging well. Other chronic diseases like arthritis, certainly impact how we age. But the question is – can you age well even with a chronic disease?
Secondly. Mobility is another factor measured in aging well. If you are mobile, you are doing better than if you are not so mobile. So, if your knees or hips make walking difficult, then you are not aging as well as you might otherwise be. Objectively, if you are in a wheelchair, you are not aging as well as someone who has no problems walking.
Thirdly. Functioning at full mental capacity, is also considered important to aging well. Struggling with cognitive issues is recognized as undermining the ability to age well. If someone is aging well, often people comment that they are still ‘sharp’.
Fourth. The presence or absence of disabilities is also considered a marker for aging well. So how is your eyesight and your hearing? Individuals may no longer see well enough to read. This impacts on their ability to enjoy life and is a factor against aging well. As well, chronic disease may create disabilities that affect your ability to age well.
Fifth. If you live longer, you are aging more successfully. So, someone who is alive and well at 90 is obviously aging well as opposed to an individual who died when they were 65.
These are key aging factors. And having an objective checklist for aging well can be helpful. In fact, most of us take these factors into account when planning for the future and consider them to be important. But solely focusing on biomedical factors misses an important part of the picture.
Biomedical Factors Alone Are Limiting
Relying on biomedical factors alone do miss a key factor. The reality is that adapting to a disability does not doom us. Nor does a chronic condition mean that we cannot age successfully.
As Abraham Lincoln put it:
“It’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.
There are important metrics that the biomedical approach misses. When researchers asked seniors how they defined successful aging, the gaps become obvious.
Those of us over 50 tend to focus on the subjective measures. That means that the measuring standard is personal. How satisfied I am about something will be different from how satisfied you are.
Most of us do take a much more personal approach to defining “aging well”.
Subjective measures cover areas such as financial security and supportive social relationships. A sense of purpose or spirituality can also serve as a measure. Research shows we also value resilience and overall life satisfaction.
So, let’s dig into subjective measurements and you can choose what works best for you.
Socio-psychological standards focus on subjective factors. If you feel you are doing well or better than you expected, you are aging successfully.
Individual perspectives, using this approach, become important criteria and rightfully so! If you feel satisfied with your life, then it is fair to say that you are aging well. You can be in great physical shape and not be happy or content. In this case, without the feeling of contentment, physical well-being is somewhat meaningless.
In many ways it is like the pain scale. If you ask someone to identify their pain level, then that is the true measure of their pain. What someone thinks or feels impacts their lived experience. Thus, life satisfaction has a greater impact on aging well then mobility.
Research in this area identified six factors:
1. Financial security is considered important by many seniors. Feeling financially secure, reduces anxiety and stress. And we know stress reduction positively impacts brain health.
2. Support gained from social relationships impacts aging well. Social network activity also makes a difference. Research ties active social networks to living longer. As well, we know loneliness and isolation increase your risk of cognitive decline.
Meaningful relationships are important to aging well. Our networks may be extensive but as we age, they tend to shrink. We are no longer as active and who we interact with shrinks to those people who are most meaningful in our lives.
As well, social media has entered our lives in the last 15 years and has affected social networks. The use of social media will develop and change. But what will not change is the importance of face-to-face interactions. It is important not to replace face-to-face interactions with technology.
3. A sense of purpose is important to aging well. Research in this area has tied sense of purpose to reduction of dementia risk. In fact, individuals who have a sense of purpose reduce their dementia risk by 30%. Sense of purpose will also have an impact on depression. Individuals who suffer from depression do not age well.
One of the challenges of using subjective criteria to assess aging well is our own bias. It is easy to attribute our own perspective to someone at a particular age. We assume our feelings will not change as we age. But things that were important to us at 30 are not so important to us at 70.
I really liked what Muhammad Ali said about perspective. He said:
“A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty, has wasted thirty years of his life.”
That doesn’t diminish the value of our life at 70 – it is just different. And the truth is – we still feel like the same person inside. We still have the same needs and desires for love and interactions with others. We still enjoy friendships and being involved in meaningful activities. But our perspectives have evolved.
4. An ability to cope or adapt is also important for aging well. When individuals are resilient, they bounce back from the inevitable disappointments of life. They keep a positive outlook when things go awry. And a positive outlook is also a factor in living longer.
Resilience is a factor in aging well. No life is without its worries or sorrows. But the way we cope with the inevitable disappointments of life has a big impact on how we enjoy the second half of our life. The topic of resilience is one that is worth reflecting on – and will be dealt with more extensively later.
5. Spirituality is an important component in aging well. Research shows that individuals with a prayer life, or who attend a place of worship, live longer and happier lives. Daily prayer or meditation has been shown to strengthen the frontal cortex of the brain. This part of the brain handles critical thinking. It is where we exercise good judgment. And the research concludes that individuals with good judgment make healthy lifestyle choices.
Worshiping in a community also provides a caring network of individuals. People in the faith community look out for each other. The community serves as an anchor which gives life a foundation.
6. Finally, what this all adds up to is a high level of ‘Life Satisfaction’. If you are satisfied with your life – you are aging well. This may be the most important factor in determining whether you are aging well.
Of course, the impact of any one of these factors differs from individual to individual. The takeaway though is that your perspective on life makes a big difference.
Aging Well – What You Think Matters
Your perspective – what you think – will impact on how you age. Focus on what you can control, and you can have a positive effect on the more objective measurements. You can control your outlook. You can enhance your social networks and strengthen your sense of purpose. All these can have a positive impact on biological measurements for aging well.
While you may not be able to avoid a chronic condition, you can control your outlook on life. And as Abraham Lincoln suggested, you can put life in your years!
Our perspectives on successful aging are layered and complex. Including both biomedical markers and personal factors like satisfaction and adaptability, will ensure the best outcomes.
While we all must develop our own definition of successful aging, we also have to surround ourselves with a support system as we strive to achieve it.
So, give some thought to these two questions.
How would you define aging well?
As you age, what is most important to you?
Drop a comment below this post and let us know.