Successful Aging in New Millenium

No matter what your age or health, isn’t it wonderful to be alive at the dawn of the year 2000? Doesn’t it feel as if we have reached the future?

Certainly the technological and medical advances of the last 50 years and those promised in the millennium seem the stuff of science fiction. Life expectancy in 1900 was 49; now it is 70–80. Many are living to 100, and projections push life expectancy to 130.

The 20th century saw the birth of organ transplants, advanced heart surgeries, life-saving antibiotics, and medications for everything from mental illness to Parkinson’s disease. This new century seduces us with yet more fantastic biotechnological advances. We do not have to accept our given bodies, many diseases or advancing age. We can refashion ourselves through liposuction, implants and plastic surgery.

The future is now. Yet what connotes successful aging? The perfectly preserved body or something else?

I attended the Gerontological Society of America’s 52nd annual meeting and attended a session titled “The Paradox of Successful Aging: A Critical Look at Neglected Dimensions.” The session’s panel included professors from around the country and was chaired by UC Berkeley’s Dr. Meredith Minkler.

Although pleased that the idea of “successful aging” has emerged after years of equaling aging with decline and death, Minkler and the panel pointed out the the difficulties of the concept’s current stereotype. Looking for a broader definition than the technologically preserved “super seniors” who don’t look older than middle age and who run marathons, the panel asked questions and proposed a more diverse vision.

Is successful aging the result of good genes or good living? Is it luck, or having the wealth to take advantage of every technological breakthrough?

The panel asserted there is no one definition for successul aging, and instead chose a rich meaning that contains all socioeconomic groups, different ethnic and cultural values and physical disabilities. It emphasized the growth of one’s inner life, unique personal history and spiritual depth.

The panel presented research that probed the effects of long-term disability and aging. Interviews with disabled elderly individuals revealed that they had a strong sense of control over their lives and self-fulfillment. A satisfying life was measured by having close friends and being useful. One study participant, unable to leave her home, organized political campaigns and maintained friendships by telephone. Further, the number of social contacts was not as important as the warmth and meaning derived from these relationships. In contrast, the panel also asked: “Is aging a disease to be conquered or a normal part of the lifespan? With the advent of feeding tubes and respirators, should death be avoidable at all costs rather than inevitable? Is death a punishment for a life not well lived?”

The panel suggested these considerations for successful aging:

And a sense of humor seems vital. Panel members volunteered their own images of aging: One said she would like “to get fat, wrinkled and read novels all day”; another would like to “sit on the curb and spit.”

As the millennium starts, what is your definition of aging in this brave new world?