6 Strategies for Aging Successfully

If you want to see what successful aging looks like, take a look at how Larry Gondelman and Pamela Roddy are doing.

At age 69, Gondelman, a lawyer in Washington, D.C., attends dozens of concerts a year, from hip-hop to rock and every genre in between. He teaches classes on topics such as the history of rock and roll and tales of songwriters and their works through an organization that offers continuing education classes for seniors. He’s also the “supreme commissioner” of a rigorous weekly pickup full-court basketball game that’s well into its fourth decade. Gondelman competes with law school friends he’s known for more than 40 years as well as some of their sons in their 20s, 30s and 40s.

While still active at the law firm, Gondelman’s no longer in the daily grind. He works on big-picture issues, helping with strategy and ethical questions. “It’s the best,” Gondelman says of this stage of his life. “Every day there’s something exciting to do.”

Roddy, 82, feels equally enthusiastic about her life in retirement.

Roddy, of Bethesda, Maryland, stopped working at age 75, after a long career which started in academia, moved to private scientific research and ended with the federal government, where she worked as an administrator. Now, she plays tennis, indoor doubles and mixed doubles, up to three times a week, takes online Zumba classes, lifts weights at home and is learning to play pickle ball.

When she’s not exercising, Roddy engages in an array of activities she didn’t have time for when she was working. She’s in several book clubs and takes three to four 90-minute continuing education classes a week, on literature, history and economics. Roddy also volunteers at Maryland Responds, helping manage distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and testing programs.

“I’m very happy,” Roddy says. “Retirement has enabled me to more fully enjoy my husband, Jim, my children and grandchildren and many friends. I continue to experience the mental and physical toll from taking care of sick and dying loved ones. However, this toll is partially offset by the knowledge that I am doing the best I can and the luck of continued good health.”

[READ: Understanding the Different Senior Care Options.]

Increased Life Expectancy

Gondelman and Roddy are examples of what gerontology experts would call successful aging.

Thanks to investments over time in public health, medical care and education, life spans in the developed world have increased dramatically in the past 12 decades, says Linda Fried, dean of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. She’s also the director of the Robert Butler Columbia Aging Center.

In 1900, the average life expectancy for men and women in the U.S. was 47 years, she says.

As of the first half of 2020, average life expectancy for the total U.S. population was nearly 78 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The life expectancy for women was 80.5 years and 75 years for men.

The idea that living longer necessarily means enduring significant declines in health has changed in the last two decades, Fried says. “In the last 20 years, public health scientists have shown it’s possible to live a long life with health,” she says. “It’s possible to increase your health span as long as your life span. Some decline in health and function is inevitable. But the image that older life is about decrepitude turns out not to be right.”

While some physical and mental decline is inevitable with advancing age, research suggests such degradation isn’t as severe as previously thought, says Jennifer Ailshire, an associate professor of gerontology at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California.

The expectation used to be that the course of a person’s life would resemble a graphic in which a person climbs up a set of stairs, gaining in abilities, then hits a peak somewhere before or around middle age. That would be followed by a steady downward spiral in physiological and physical abilities. That belief is outdated.

“It’s a paradigm shift that’s happened maybe in the last 10 years,” she says. Many baby boomers — people born between 1946 and 1964 — are maintaining good fitness and high levels of cognitive health as they are aging, she says.

This change in expectations for what older life looks like is occurring as the U.S. population is rapidly aging. There are about 74 million baby boomers in the U.S. By 2030, all baby boomers will be 65 years or older, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That year, for the first time in history, seniors will outnumber children in the U.S., bureau demographers project.

[READ: Mental Exercises to Keep Your Brain Sharp.]

Defining Successful Aging

In their 1998 book “Successful Aging,” authors John W. Rowe and Robert L. Kahn provide a definition of successful aging, which many experts in gerontology still refer to as a benchmark.

Rowe and Kahn define successful aging as:

— Being free of disease or disability.

— Maintaining high physical and cognitive abilities.

— Interacting with others in meaningful ways.

No Need to Jump Out of Airplanes

That doesn’t mean that people who are disabled, homebound, have cognitive deficits or are suffering from chronic and potentially terminal illnesses like cancer or diabetes are “failures,” says Harry “Rick” Moody, a visiting faculty member at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California. Moody has spent decades working in the field of gerontology, and wrote a textbook on the topic.

“No matter what your situation, there are opportunities for living a meaningful and positive life,” he says. “We should avoid putting putting people in categories that make it sound like their lives are a ‘failure.'” Moody likes to use the term “decrement with compensation.” That means “there are many ways to find that compensation,” he adds.

It’s important to keep in mind that aging successfully doesn’t mean you start jumping out of airplanes or bungee jumping in your later years, Moody says. “It doesn’t mean you have all the skills and abilities you had when you were younger,” Moody says. “As you get older your memory and hearing will likely get worse. Declinations will happen, but you can compensate. For example, I wear hearing aids,” (Moody is 76). “If you compensate, you’ll age successfully. If you don’t, you won’t age successfully.”

How to Age Successfully

Here are six strategies for aging successfully:

1. Don’t feel limited by age. If you’ve enjoyed certain activities throughout your life, continue them, Ailshire says. Depending on your physical abilities, you may have to make some adaptations. For example, if you’ve enjoyed playing singles tennis throughout your life but have a hard time covering the court by yourself, switch to doubles. If you’ve always had fun dancing, don’t stop the music.

“My grandmother would go out dancing into her 80s,” she says. “I thought it was really fantastic that this woman who loved dancing would go to a place where there were no other older people, just middle-aged and younger people, because she loved to dance.”

2. Keep learning and growing. Learning new skills and hobbies or developing “encore careers” can help people age successfully, Ailshire says. In particular, learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument can help you maintain your cognitive abilities, research suggests.

If you need to work into older age for financial reasons, you might look for jobs that are challenging in new ways, such as training for a post in a different department of the company you work for, she says. Or, people who have worked in front of a computer much of their career in an office environment might consider looking for a caregiving job or something in the service industry. Or, an individual who’s worked in caregiving or in the service sector could get training to seek office work.

Some people develop an “encore career” later in life, in which they use their skills to obtain work in areas where they feel they can help make the world better, in fields like education, the environment, social services and the nonprofit world.

3. Eat a healthy diet. As you get older, your metabolism naturally slows down. Moody recommends consuming more fruits and vegetables and fewer processed foods to maintain your physical and cognitive health. The Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, is an eating regimen that fits Moody’s recommendations, and is highly touted by many registered dietitians as a healthy and sustainable eating plan.

“Modestly reducing calories can make a difference because belly fat tends to increase with age,” Moody says. Keep an eye on your consumption of sugar, which can lead to weight gain and diabetes, and salt, which is associated with high blood pressure.

[SEE: Best Exercises for Preventing Falls in Older Adults.]

4. Get some exercise. If you’re playing tennis, pickle ball or even pickup hoops into your older years, great. If not, try walking and some weight training.

“Dramatic and heroic exercise is not needed,” Moody says. “Whether you reach 10,000 steps a day or not, make sure you get plenty of walking in each week. Introduce some forms of aerobic exercise, to the point of getting a rapid heartbeat and being out of breath.”

It may be helpful to consult with a personal trainer who can help tailor your exercise routine to your physical requirements and limits. It’s also important to pay attention to the risks of advancing age, like the risk of falling.

5.Cultivate social connections. Stay in contact with family and friends. “As we grow older, it’s inevitable that old ties will fray,” Moody says. “People die, move away, get remarried, go in different directions. Adapting is what we need to do.”

That means making new friends and working to keep old ones in your orbit. “In particular, cultivate ties with other generations,” he says. “It’s not always easy, but essential. Move on from grieving the loss of what cannot be restored. Feed the opportunities for connection and look for unexpected opportunities.” Those opportunities can present themselves through volunteering, mentoring younger colleagues or playing sports.

Gondelman, for example, maintains friendships with younger associates at his law firm, some of whom he met when he ran the summer associates program at his law firm. He’d sometimes talk about music with them and introduce them to bands they hadn’t heard of. He’s also friendly with players in his weekly basketball game who are decades younger.

6. Adapt to losses. Remember, experiencing some cognitive deficits, like diminished short-term memory, and physical limitations, like getting tired more easily, are to be expected as you age, Moody says.

There are lots of practical ways to compensate. For example, if your short-term memory isn’t as sharp as it once was, carry a notebook and write everything down. If your feet and joints aren’t up to playing full-court basketball any more, try half-court games.

And always, get enough sleep, so you can be at your best cognitively and physically. “Adapting to losses doesn’t mean ducking your head or hiding out,” he says. “Creative strategies help. The great pianist Arthur Rubinstein, when he got old, used to deliberately slow down before a fast segment, in order to create the impression of playing faster.”

This article was written with the support of a journalism fellowship from The Gerontological Society of America, The Journalists Network on Generations and the John A. Hartford Foundation. Castaneda was one of 17 distinguished reporters across the country selected to participate in the Journalists in Aging Fellowship Program.

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6 Strategies for Aging Successfully originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 03/28/22: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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