Aging 101: Scientists reveal how to successfully age gracefully

TORONTO, Ontario — Aging is a topic few people like discussing, especially in their later years. So, how do some people manage to stay healthy and vital — what scientists call “optimal aging”? A new study is revealing the key factors which can keep you lively well into old age.

In an analysis of more than 7,000 middle aged and older Canadian adults, researchers from the University of Toronto found women, married adults, and physically active individuals were more likely than their peers to maintain excellent health over a three-year study period.

Participants who were not obese, those who never smoked, high-income workers, and those with no history of sleep problems, heart disease, and arthritis were also more likely to stay in great shape over these 36 months. Overall, healthy people in any of these groups were less likely than others to develop cognitive, physical, or emotional problems.

The team notes that each participant was in “excellent” health at the start of the three-year review. None of them had any signs of memory loss, disability, or chronic pain.

“We were surprised and delighted to learn that more than 70% of our sample maintained their excellent state of health across the study period,” says study first author Mabel Ho, a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work (FIFSW) and the Institute of Life Course and Aging, in a media release.

“Our findings underline the importance of a strength-based rather than a deficit-based focus on aging and older adults. The media and research tend to ignore the positive and just focus on the problems.”

When does health start to fail among older adults?

The study found that three in four adults between 55 and 64 years-old continued to display signs of optimal aging throughout the three years. However, only half of those 80 and over remained in excellent health.

“It is remarkable that half of those aged 80 and older maintained this extremely high bar of cognitive, physical, and emotional well-being across the three years of the study. This is wonderful news for older adults and their families who may anticipate that precipitous decline is inevitable for those aged 80 and older,” says Mabel Ho. “By understanding factors associated with successful aging, we can work with older adults, families, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers to create an environment that supports a vibrant and healthy later life.”

Overeating and smoking can shorten lifespans

Results show that obesity makes it harder for older adults to maintain their good health later in life. In comparison to those who were obese, normal weight participants were 24 percent more likely to enjoy optimal aging.

“Our findings are in keeping with other studies which have found that obesity was related to a range of physical symptoms and cognitive problems and that physical activity also plays a key role in optimal aging,” says co-author David Burnes, Associate Professor at the University of Toronto’s FIFSW and a Canada Research Chair in Older Adult Mistreatment Prevention. “These findings highlight the importance of maintaining an appropriate weight and engaging in an active lifestyle throughout the life course.”

Smoking, another lifestyle factor that people have a degree of control over, also significantly affected healthy aging. Those who never smoked were 46 percent more likely to say in excellent health compared to current smokers.

However, quitting can help to reverse this trend. Results show those who quit smoking saw their survival chances, pulmonary function, and quality of life all improve. These individuals suffered fewer coronary events (like a heart attack) and had fewer respiratory symptoms later in life.

Want to live longer? Ask for a raise!

The Canadian team also found that three in four people living above the poverty line aged optimally, compared to just half of those living below the poverty line.

“Although our study does not provide information on why low income is important, it is possible that inadequate income causes stress and also restricts healthy choices such as optimal nutrition. Future research is needed to further explore this relationship,” says senior author Esme Fuller-Thomson, Director of the Institute for Life Course & Aging and Professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.

Financial stability may also make you sleep better — and that’s good for living longer as well. The report found older adults who never or rarely had sleep problems were 29 percent more likely to age optimally during the course of the three-year study.

“Clearly, good sleep is an important factor as we age. Sleep problems undermine cognitive, mental, and physical health. There is strong evidence that an intervention called cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is very helpful for people living with insomnia,” Esme Fuller-Thomson concludes.

The findings appear in the International Journal of Environmental Research.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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