Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

Aging: Fact and Fiction

Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

Aging: Fact and Fiction

Article excerpt

ALBERT EINSTEIN, Eubie Blake, Georgia O'Keeffe, Brooke Astor, Bob Hope. It is common to hear that people such as these, who live vital lives into their eighties and nineties, somehow have beat overwhelming odds to achieve a fulfilling old age. The bleak assumption about old age is that it dooms us to being lonely, sick and unproductive. In an effort to develop an empirically based "new gerontology" that moves from such outdated myths about aging to reflect the realities of successful aging today, the MacArthur Foundation Study of Aging in America conducted a wide range of research projects led by an array of scholars over the past decade. The results of the study, presented in Successful Aging by physician John Rowe of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York and psychologist Robert Kahn of the University of Michigan, show that far from being doomed to inevitable decline, the vast majority of older people maintain their health, enjoy good quality of life and contribute substantially to society well into old age.

By examining how older members of our society actually live and looking at what we can learn from people who age successfully, the research study shifted the focus away from the deficits experienced in aging to the factors that permit individuals to function effectively, both physically and mentally, well into old age. The findings debunk many common myths about aging.

MYTH: Illness, declining mental capacity and disengagement from life are inevitable. The research found that a high percentage of aging respondents were mentally and physically healthy and actively engaged in life. Only 21 percent had any significant disability, only 10 percent showed significant signs of dementia and only 5 percent lived in institutional settings. In contrast, 39 percent view their health as very good or excellent.

MYTH: Genes determine our experience of aging. The MacArthur study reveals that lifestyle choices, not genetics, most powerfully determine how people age. Diet, exercise, mental stimulation, a sense of self-efficacy and connection to others emerged as key factors in maintaining high function and being content in life. In a study of twins designed to identify the specific effects of heredity and environment, only 30 percent of the quality of life was determined by genes lifestyle and environment were the major determinants of how the elderly aged physically. The research shows that even the likelihood of developing genetic-related diseases, such as cancer and heart disease, is powerfully affected by lifestyle and environment. In addition, lifestyle far outweighs genetics in determining whether the elderly maintain high physical and mental function and active engagement in life, two key characteristics of successful aging.

The study also looked at the impact of specific lifestyle choices on the experience of aging. Inactivity, for example, emerged as more harmful than the combination of smoking and exercising regularly. Beginning regimens of good diet, exercise and health-related behaviors, such as stopping smoking and losing weight, at any age appears to improve the quality of life and experience of aging.

Social supports connections to family and friends not only have positive effects on health, but also buffer the effects of aging when illness does strike. Instrumental support (having meals prepared or the house cleaned) was not as important as emotional support in maintaining physical functioning, however. …

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