Optimal Aging

~ By Robin Avery ~

In our lifetime the changes in longevity have been remarkable. White males have added ten years to their life span since 1950, while white women have added slightly less at nine. Males of color have added thirteen years, and women of color have added almost 16 years to their life spans. Today, most men can expect to live to be seventy-four, and most women can reach almost eighty. The trend for Baby Boomers is to live well into their eighties.

In spite of the plenitude of subjects, few studies have explored happy/well and sad/sick aging. With little research to reference, we haven’t much comparative data to guide elders toward best practices for the new and longer lives we are living.

Listen to Robin Avery speak on “Optimal Aging.”

A review of what is arguably the best book on the subject, Aging Well, Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life, focuses on the landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development by Dr. George Vaillant. That study made some fascinating discoveries. In 1941 the study began to follow 824 people divided into three groups based on their mental and physical health. Selected more than 60 years ago and studied for their entire lives, these people comprised 260 socially advantaged Harvard graduates, 456 socially disadvantaged inner city men born about 1930, and 90 middle-class, intellectually gifted women in Southern California, born about 1910. These folks were followed and regularly interviewed by a team of physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists and physical anthropologists. Funded by more than a score of sources, the project cost millions and took immense perseverance and teamwork by generations of health workers, and a lot of luck to complete. Below are a few of their results.

We age chronologically, psychologically, and of course biologically. Psychological and biological aging classically are divided into “normal” aging (about 70% of us), pathological aging consisting of a medical diagnoses usually requiring medications (about 23% of us), and Optimal Aging (only about 7% of us). It is said that while old age can be a mine field, if you see footprints leading to the other side, step into them. At age 78, study participant Marvin Barrett, a distinguished journalist, survivor of cancer and heart attack and stroke, wrote:

Old age is a plain, an alto plano, with nothing when you come out onto it but horizon; there are few discernable features, at least at first glance, no tracks to follow. Accustomed to limits, guidelines, markers, you stand there stunned, amazed. You haven’t had such a sense of space since you were twenty- the splendor, the terror of it.

Aging Well, Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life provide tracks to follow, guidelines and markers.

Six variables that are NOT Predictors of Health Aging (Happy/Well vs. Sad/Sick in the study):

  • Ancestral Longevity is weakly correlated – In any given individual there are so many both good and bad genes that their effect on longevity tend to average out.
  • Cholesterol – There’s a time for worrying about cholesterol, and a time not to worry about it.
  • Stress – Psychosomatic illnesses typically fade post-retirement.
  • Parental characteristics – Relevant at age 40; at age 70, not so much
  • Childhood temperament – Shyness, anxiety, etc., can have deleterious health effects, but by age 70 these are statistically irrelevant.
  • Vital affect and general ease in social relationships – Again, relevant in early and mid-life, but relevancy fades after age 70.

Seven factors that ARE Predictors of Health Aging (Happy/Well vs Sad/Sick) allow us to look 30 years into the future! These study predictors found at age 50 predicted Happy/Well aging well into the eighties:

  • Being a non-smoker or quitting young – Smoking kills.
  • Adaptive Coping Style – This refers to using mature defenses; in other words, turning lemons into lemonade, and not turning molehills into mountains. Below, I touch on this more as “sublimation.”
  • Absence of Alcohol Abuse – Alcohol abuse is a major and often unrecognized cause of unsuccessful aging.
  • Healthy Weight/Good Nutrition is a sign of mature self-care.
  • Stable relationships – Cultivate the richest social network you possibly can, because your life will be much better for it.
  • Exercise – Sitting is the new smoking.
  • Years of education – Education leads to self-care and perseverance, and an important life-skill: the ability to take the long view.

Adaptive Coping Style is my favorite. Freud and many others focus on mature coping mechanisms when discussing Developmental Stage Theories. The psychiatrist George Eman Vaillant introduced a four-level classification of defense mechanisms:

  • Pathological Defenses – Psychotic denial, delusional projection
  • Immature Defenses – Fantasy, projection, passive aggression, acting out
  • Neurotic Defenses – Intellectualization, reaction formation, dissociation, displacement, repression
  • Mature Defenses – Humor, sublimation, suppression, altruism, anticipation.

There it is. In the Mature Defenses category. Sublimation. Classically, sublimation is defined as transforming of unhelpful emotions or instincts into healthy actions, behaviors, or emotions. I call it reinventing oneself. It’s choosing which “I” comes to the dance in late life. The choices we make throughout our lives have always influenced the quality of our future. So it is with aging. Whether we live to a vigorous old age lies not so much in our stars or in our genes, but in ourselves.

My next column will explore this notion of sublimation, and what it means to our creativity, play, and Happy/Well aging. In Old Age and Old-Old Age, the study identified three important roles the happy/well fill – Generativity, Keeper of the Meaning and Integrity. Future columns will take a look at these, too.

Robin Avery

Robin Avery

Robin Avery is the Founder of Shanagolden Management, LLC, a Gerontologist, Consultant, Developer and Operator of assisted living communities. He can be reached at ravy2003@msn.com.

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