Dec. 16, 2005 -- Successful aging may depend more on a person's attitude and coping style than with avoiding disease or disability.
A new survey of older adults over age 60 shows nearly three-fourths felt they were aging well, despite often having physical illness or disability.
Researchers say the results suggest that the self-perception of the aging process relates more to attitude than physical health.
"For most people, worries about their future aging involve fear of physical infirmity, disease or disability," says researcher Dilip Jeste, MD, professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the University of California at San Diego, in a news release. "However, this study is encouraging because it shows that the best predictors of successful aging are well within an individual's control."
Jeste presented the study this week at the annual meeting of American College of Neuropsychopharmacology in Waikoloa, Hawaii.
Attitude Matters in Successful Aging
In the study, researchers interviewed more than 500 older Americans who were living independently (not in nursing homes or assisted-living facilities). The participants were asked about their physical and mental health as well as to rate their own degree of successful aging on a 10-point scale with 10 being most successful.
The results showed the rates of medical illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc., reflected national averages, and about 20%-25% of the participants had been diagnosed with a mental health condition, also in line with national averages.
According to traditional measures of successful aging -- defined by absence of disease and freedom from disability -- researchers say less than 10% of the participants would be considered to be aging successfully.
But despite the high rates of illness in the group, researchers found the average successful aging rating was 8.4, and most of the participants who gave themselves high ratings would not meet the traditional criteria for successful aging.
"What is most interesting about this study is that people who think they are aging well are not necessarily the most healthy individuals," says Jeste. "In fact, optimism and effective coping styles were found to be more important to aging successfully than traditional measures of health and wellness. These findings suggest that physical health is not the best indicator of successful aging -- attitude is."
Another indicator of successful aging was a high degree of social and community involvement. Older adults who spent time each day on hobbies, such as reading and writing, or socializing with others, consistently gave themselves higher marks.
People who worked outside the home were also more likely to rate their aging process as successful, but volunteer work did not have as strong an influence.