It could be schematized somewhat categorically as follows: there are people who “arrive well”, others “more or less” and others who get sick with different types of conditions. When thinking about old age, the question seems to be: What are the keys to “successful” or optimal aging?
That question was precisely what a new study from the University of Toronto set out to answer that focuses on factors related to well-being as we age. To do this, the researchers followed the trajectory of more than 7,000 Canadians, middle-aged and older, for about three years, using a ” strength -based rather than deficit-based” approach.
Thus, staying active through exercise, good nutrition, optimal rest, emotional support, refraining from smoking and having a good financial life appear as the main factors that make aging well.
An excerpt that sums it up: the work shows that women, married, physically active and not obese and those who had never smoked, had higher incomes and did not suffer from insomnia, heart disease or arthritis; they were more likely to maintain excellent health during the study period and were less likely to develop disabling cognitive, physical, or emotional problems.
In order to conduct the study, the researchers selected participants who were already in excellent health at the beginning of the study period, which lasted approximately three years. This universe of people represented 45% of the total respondents.
“Good health” implied the absence of memory problems or chronic disabling pain, serious mental illness, and physical disabilities that limit daily activities; as well as the presence of adequate social support and high levels of happiness and satisfaction with life .
“We were surprised and delighted to learn that more than 70% of our sample maintained excellent health throughout the study period,” says Mabel Ho, the study’s first author.
And he delves into what it means to focus on the positive instead of the negative: “Our findings underscore the importance of a strength-based approach rather than a deficit-based approach in aging and older adults. The media and the investigation tend to ignore the positive and only focus on the problems, ”she analyzes.
Furthermore, he adds: “By understanding the factors associated with successful aging, we can work with older adults, families, clinicians, policymakers, and researchers to create an environment that supports a vibrant and healthy later life.”
Age and weight, important variables
The researchers claim to have found “considerable variation in the prevalence of successful aging by age of the respondents” at the start of the study. Three quarters of those aged 55 to 64 at the start of the study period maintained excellent health throughout the study. Among those 80 and older, about half were in excellent health.
“It is remarkable that half of people over the age of 80 maintained this extremely high bar of cognitive, physical and emotional well-being over the three years of the study. This is wonderful news for older adults and their families, who can anticipate that precipitous decline is inevitable for people over the age of 80,” Ho said.
Meanwhile, the presence or absence of obesity is another factor that sets the pulse: Older adults who were obese were less likely to maintain good health into adulthood. Compared to them, those with a weight considered “normal” were 24% more likely to age optimally.
“Our findings are in line with other studies that have found that obesity is related to a variety of physical symptoms and cognitive problems and that physical activity also plays a key role in optimal aging,” said David Burnes, co-author of the study.
“These findings highlight the importance of maintaining a proper weight and leading an active lifestyle throughout life.”
The economic factor
As expected, income was also a very important variable. In fact, only about half of those below the poverty line age optimally compared to three-quarters of those living above the poverty line.
“Although our study does not provide information about why low income is important, it is possible that inadequate income causes stress and also restricts healthy choices, such as optimal nutrition. Future research is needed to further explore this relationship,” said Esme Fuller-Thomson, lead author and director of the Institute for the Life Course and Aging and professor at the Factor-Inwentash School of Social Work at the University of Toronto. .
Quit smoking, at any time in life
Another issue that is known and that the study confirms: healthy habits are associated with optimal health in old age. In this sense, older adults who never smoked were 46% more likely to maintain excellent health compared to current smokers.
In addition, previous studies have shown that quitting smoking in old age could improve survival statistics, lung function, and quality of life; reduce coronary event rates and reduce respiratory symptoms.
One thing to note: The study found that ex-smokers fared just as well as never-smokers, underscoring that it’s never too late to quit.
Stay active and get a good rest
The study also highlights that engaging in activities that engage the body and involve physical activity is extremely important for maintaining good health in adulthood: Older adults who engaged in moderate to strenuous physical activity were 35% to 45% more chance of aging well, respectively.
The findings also indicated that respondents who never or rarely experienced sleep problems at the start of the study were 29% more likely to maintain excellent health throughout the study.
“Clearly, getting good sleep is an important factor as we get older. Sleep problems undermine cognitive, mental and physical health. There is strong evidence that an intervention called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is very helpful for people living with insomnia,” Fuller-Thomson notes.