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The Unexpected Secret to Successful Aging

Attending to the needs of an elderly loved one can heighten your awareness of the process of physical and mental decline typically associated with life on the other side of the proverbial hill.

You see your mother struggle to get around with a bulky walker, and listen to your father repeat the same statements over and over again. It seems inevitable that these changes will eventually happen to you.

Are you destined to age the same way your parent has? Or is there a way to help ensure you age gracefully, or successfully? While genes do play a role in how well we age, they're not the final arbiters of our fate, according to Dilip Jeste, M.D., Director of the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging and President of the American Psychiatric Association.

After surveying more than 1,000 older adults, Jeste and his colleagues discovered that, when it comes to aging, it's not how fast you can run, or whether you can complete the New York Times crossword puzzle that makes you a success—it's your attitude that really counts.

"The most surprising result we found was the paradox of aging—i.e., as physical health declined with aging, self-rated successful aging scores seemed to increase," Jeste says. "Our findings showed that physical health was neither necessary nor sufficient for feeling good about one's own aging."

In fact, many seniors who were grappling with physical or mental decline said they felt that their overall well being was increasing with each passing year.

"Behavior and environment impact the expression of genes responsible for functioning. Thus we do have some control over whether we adopt an optimistic versus negative view of aging," he says.

Successful aging: How to grow old gracefully

Once you've discovered what it means to age "successfully," the question becomes: How do you do it?

Jeste's recipe for effective aging includes three ingredients: resilience (the ability to adapt and persevere in the face of hardship), optimism (being able to recognize both the good and the bad in a given situation) and the absence of depression.

He provides a few strategies for approaching the aging process in a productive way:

  • Be logical: It's important to strike a balance between pessimism and unrealistic optimism, says Jeste. For instance, if you have cancer, you won't be able to cure yourself simply by thinking happy thoughts. Instead, seek out the treatment options that are right for you and remain confident that they will help you.
  • Seek support: A support network of friends and family is essential for maintaining mental and emotional wellbeing, especially as you age. Social support provides a stalwart shield against disease-causing stress of all kinds.
  • Tame tension: Whether it's taking a walk, adopting a yoga practice or reading a book, make sure to regularly engage in activities that you find enjoyable. Taking a break from the pressure and strain of everyday life is essential for building your resilience reserves.
  • Manage depression: About one in ten American adults suffer from depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Women age 45-64 have a higher risk of developing the symptoms of depression, including excessive fatigue, irritability, feeling hopeless, loss of interest in hobbies and suicidal tendencies. According to Jeste, recognizing and managing depression is vitally important to maintaining good mental and physical health as you age. Consult with a doctor if you feel you or your loved one may be depressed.

The idea that some elements of aging are controllable is a positive one for Jeste, who is optimistic about the future of growing old in America.

"Over the next three decades, we will witness the largest increase in the number of people over age 65 in the history of mankind," he says. "Our study suggests that an increasing number of these older adults can be productive and contribute to our society in many ways."

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