What is Healthy Aging?
We often hear “healthy aging” or “successful aging,” but have you ever discovered what these phrases truly mean? What is healthy aging? What is successful aging? Who defines these standards? In honor of Healthy Aging Month, we will be doing a deep dive into these questions in pursuit of answers and understanding.
Aging is inevitable – it transcends all efforts from “anti-aging” products that minimize the appearance of wrinkles, the amount of exercise we engage in, and even medications meant to curb disease and prolong our lives. Of course, we must prioritize our physical, social, and mental health as we age, but in the end, there is always an end. To understand healthy aging, we must also consider the variety of aging journeys. No medical journal or medical professional sets the standard, and there is no group or club of people who do the same things to be considered healthy aging individuals. Healthy aging is not a step-by-step process found in a manual.
Instead, we must consider the heterogeneity of experience, backgrounds, physical abilities, and social/environmental circumstances. Healthy aging is not a one-size-fits-all reality.
Healthy Physical Aging
How can we help our aging bodies age healthily? Firstly, we must consider that physical limitation does not equal unhealthy aging. Although there may be ways of preventing certain diseases common in later life, genetics indefinitely play a role in the equation. Additionally, life is unpredictable, and accidents happen. Physical injury can occur because of accidents, but that does not automatically stop someone from being able to age healthily. In fact, individuals who use assistive devices to walk or wheelchairs may cover more mileage than those who do not!
Because our bones, joints, and muscles age just the same as the rest of our bodies, our physical abilities will change over time. However, this should not signal stopping physical activity altogether. Thankfully, due to the internet, various exercises based on differing ability levels, such as Chair Exercises, help keep the body active and the mind engaged. There is a model that relates well to the changes we may experience as we age and how our mindset can be our greatest ally. The Selective Optimization with Compensation model outlines the psychological and behavioral changes we can make to adapt to age-related losses, such as retiring from certain activities our physical bodies can no longer keep up with. By optimizing our remaining strengths, though, we can find new ways to engage in exercise despite the physical changes we experience. Healthy Aging is not running twice a day or playing tennis twice a week; it is adapting to age-related physical changes and discovering how to engage in exercises that optimize our strengths.
Healthy Social Aging
Social health is challenging to measure due to its subjective nature. Although social health is – in the end – determined by the individual, it is well known that social interaction and maintaining social circles have become increasingly essential and provide many benefits as we age. However, the amount of social interaction individuals deem fulfilling for their lives may vary. Two people, for instance, may have completely different social needs. One individual may get their social tank filled for the week by having lunch with a friend, while another thrives by playing tennis in a league one day, lunch with friends the next, and a family gathering the following day. A theory that comes to mind when considering social health and wellbeing as we age is the Socioemotional Selectivity Theory, which claims that social goals and needs change due to a newfound perception of time as we age. For instance, older adults may make less of an effort to make new friends or join new social circles simply because they desire to allocate their time and social efforts to their family or close friends. And this is okay! Being selective about social interactions is not unhealthy. Healthy social aging is not based on the number of friends you have, the number of new acquaintances you make, or the number of social clubs you are and member of. It is about meeting your social needs/goals and filling your time with fulfilling social interactions.
We can also flip the narrative and say that a part of healthy social aging is helping others meet their social needs/goals. This could be in the form of volunteering, helping those less fortunate than us, and in the process, practicing gratitude. Social interactions through helping others can be mood boosters, causing us to pause and be thankful. All in all, there are many ways we can be socially active in older adulthood. Social health deserves significant attention when we think of Healthy Aging – our families, friends, and other loved ones are irreplaceable, as is the time we get with them.
Psychological Healthy Aging
What comes to mind when you think of healthy psychological aging? Is it being joyful all the time? Well, no, being optimistic 100% of the time is virtually impossible. But over the years, I have learned a vital lesson from my parents and grandparents, which has shaped my mindset: happiness is a choice. Happiness is not based on our circumstances; it is not a thing that we necessarily always involuntarily achieve; instead, it is a psychological choice we must make daily.
As a Gerontologist in training, constantly focusing on the positives of aging is second nature. And while there are many positives in older age that society neglects to highlight, I don’t want to be unrealistic by sugarcoating the entire aging journey. Aging individuals experience gains and – potentially – very challenging losses: the death of loved ones, spouses, beloved pets, limited physical mobility, and illness, to name a few. So, assuming that one will be happy all the time is far-fetched. Grieving and mourning losses is a natural and healthy way to cope and should never be dismissed. However, despite our circumstances, we can be reminded of our resilience when we choose happiness. Older adults are some of the most resilient individuals. I believe this to be because of their psychological habits and healthy coping strategies they have accumulated over time and as they navigate age-related losses.
Without bringing too much science into the conversation, I want to highlight one last model that brings everything together. The Bio-psycho-social model aims to connect the dots by emphasizing the connectedness of the mind and body. In other words, how we think can affect our biological and social health. Similarly, our physical health can affect our moods, thought processes, and social health. Each of these humanistic elements is intrinsically related and affects one another, positively or negatively.
Stress, for instance, is a biological response to a psychological state that may result from a social environment or situation. The stress response (the Fight or Flight mechanism) was only meant to last for short periods as the hormones released during this response can have long-term damaging effects on the body if released often. Unfortunately, in our fast-paced world, the pressure to succeed, be popular, and be youthful, has caused undue stress on people of all ages, and sadly, it is making them sick. Ageism, prevalent and pervasive in the media, movies, TV shows, ads, and more, may also cause stress and harm mental, physical, and social health.
Fortunately, we have the authority to make changes in our lives. Lifestyle choices such as the foods we eat, regular exercise that suits our strengths and abilities, and social interaction with others can significantly improve our overall health and quality of life. Even just a mindset that views aging in a positive light rather than a sad and despairing journey over the hill can make all the difference. Our mindset has a tremendous influence on healthy aging.
I repeat: Healthy Aging is not a one-size-fits-all experience or a step-by-step program. No one oversees the standards, though emerging research on aging and wellness can point us in the right direction. Healthy Aging is about small steps to creating healthy mindsets, habits, and environments. Here are five ways in which we can promote healthy aging for ourselves and share with our aging loved ones:
- Prioritizing our physical health through healthy food choices – give yourself grace because creating healthy eating habits takes time and patience. Opt for substituting a few snacks a day with healthier options, and slowly but surely, results will follow.
- Be creative – find ways to engage your body in physical exercise by working around physical limitations. Remember, optimizing our strengths to compensate for losses will help us stay active and potentially try new things!
- Write down or mentally identify your social needs/goals and assess if they are being met. What other ways can you reach out and spend more time with your tight-knit social circles, join new ones, or help others?
- Be aware of ageist messages hidden in society. Recognize that those messages are primarily negative stereotypes that cause stress and are not beneficial to individuals of any age. As no one is exempt from aging, we will all have to fight the battle of ageism at some point in our lives. Help and educate others on ageism so that we may all strive to combat this form of prejudice.
- Finally, check your mind and your thought processes. How do you view aging? Remember that happiness is a daily choice and that our minds can produce thoughts that have cascading effects on our overall health and wellness. Prioritize your mental health, talk it out with a confidant or loved one, and be continually self-aware of your worth and incredible contributions to society as an aging individual.