As life expectancy in the United States continues to move higher, the number of people older than age 65 will grow dramatically in the coming decades.
Likewise, individuals ages 85 or older are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. The men and women are pioneers in the country of extended old age.
The group is exploring new territory, proving that the post-retirement years do not have to be a period of loss and inexorable decline.
Quite the opposite. The later years provide powerful opportunities for continued growth - for affirming or reconsidering one's priorities, taking on new challenges, exploring uncharted paths.
To help older adults take advantage of the opportunities presented by longer lives, the AARP Foundation has published a booklet called Aging Successfully. The booklet describes the results of five research projects on successful aging and suggests what individuals can do to improve the chances of aging well.
"Successful aging is best understood as a process, rather than an outcome - a way of doing and being," points out Betsy Sprouse, program manager of the AARP Foundation. "It is about our ongoing, day-to-day efforts to live as well as possible during the latter part of our lives. It is not confined to the most vital and vibrant among us."
While good health is important to successful aging, it is not the whole story.
Slightly more than one-quarter of the group of older adults who participated in one of the research projects sponsored by the AARP Foundation have serious or multiple chronic diseases and conditions, but see themselves as aging well. Conversely, some healthy older adults, as many as one-third in the study, do not see themselves as aging well.
The study results highlight an important point - attitude appears to count in a number of ways.
Older adults who are aging well are characterized by a positive outlook on life, a willingness to continue to learn and satisfaction with the way things are.
The acceptance of aging is another part of the attitude equation. Seniors who have come to terms with the realities and limitations of aging are able to adjust their perspectives. They can find meaning and joy in the life they have.
Financial security is another factor in successful aging. Older adults with inadequate financial resources or reported problems in neighborhoods were less likely to see themselves as aging successfully than seniors who are financially secure.
Staying involved in the outside world is important as well. The research suggested that people who are aging successfully are widely engaged in a variety of activities, including paid or volunteer work, taking classes or participating in cultural activities.
Finally, the study shows that relationships, particularly close family relationships, matter. A happy marriage or other long-term relationship significantly increases the chances of successful aging, as does a spouse or partner who is also aging well. Conversely, having children with financial, health, relationship or emotional problems is associated with lower chances of successful aging.
Researchers looking at the issue of successful aging have identified the 10 behaviors and attitudes that provide older adults with the best chance of aging well. The behaviors and attitudes include:
Drink moderately. One alcoholic drink a day doesn't hurt, and may reduce chances of heart disease. But alcohol abuse can lead to disability and early death.
Stay physically active. Exercise is associated with a variety of good outcomes, from increased memory to reduced rates of heart disease, depression and cancer.
Eat a balanced diet. Limit the fats in diets and try to include at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
Avoid obesity. Being significantly overweight is associated with a variety of bad health outcomes, including heart disease and diabetes.
Protect vision and hearing. Eyes and ears are critical to functions such as driving and reading. They also help you remain engaged in conversations and relationships.
Get regular health care and vaccinations to prevent many problems before the conditions require more serious treatment.
Maintain a social network and strong personal relationships.
Remain active in professional, community or other activities. Feeling useful is positively associated with good outcomes as people age.
Develop a financial plan. Having the money to meet material needs can increase people's chances of successful aging.