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Secrets of Successful Aging. Part 1

Lifestyle Choices Most Important, Study Shows

What advice does retired Army Col. Robert L. Bass give his three children about living to a ripe old age and enjoying it to the fullest?

“Watch how you treat your body and what you eat, stay physically active, keep informed about new medical developments that can improve your health, and prepare yourself for the future by saving money and by getting a good education,” says the 72-year-old resident of Tampa, Fla.

Bass practices what he preaches — he doesn’t smoke, he drinks a beer about once a week, he eats plenty of raw fruits and veggies and very little meat — and it seems to be paying off. He jogs almost every morning and works out with weights most nights. As a result, he says he enjoys good health, a “reasonably successful” life and a positive marriage that is now 52 years young.

Turns out that the advice and lifestyle of this role model are right on target, according to the longest continuous study of mental and physical health ever done worldwide, reported in the June 2001 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The Study

“This is an amazing study. Imagine following people over 60 years with physical examinations every five years and tests of psychological and social adjustment every two years!” says Verena Menec, Ph.D., an assistant professor of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. “Most studies of aging don’t begin until subjects are over age 60. Now we can look at how early life and middle-age factors predict aging.”

The findings of this study should bring new hope to those who want to improve their own health and quality of life. And even if you’re a couch potato who has let things slide a little, it’s never too late to make a difference.

By following 724 men for 60 years beginning in 1940, researchers from Harvard University studied the best predictors of successful aging at ages 70 to 80, as reflected in physical health, survival without disability, social supports, mental health, independence in activities of daily living and life enjoyment.

The Lifestyle

Other than not having a history of depression, all factors predicting successful aging could be controlled to some extent by the individuals themselves. These included moderate alcohol consumption, not smoking, a stable marriage, regular exercise, normal weight, and positive coping mechanisms.

“You have to be flexible and willing to cope with whatever challenges cross your path,” says Bass, whose military career has included two tours in Vietnam, one in Korea and one in Okinawa.

Getting a head start on healthy habits, like exercise, diet, and avoiding smoking and heavy drinking, pays off in the long run. “It is remarkable to see how important early lifestyles appear to be for health in our 70s,” says Brenda Penninx, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Sticht Center on Aging of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston Salem, N.C.

“It’s never too early to begin practicing a healthy lifestyle,” agrees Jennifer B. Unger, Ph.D., an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “Adolescents and young adults should be encouraged to adopt healthy lifestyles now, instead of waiting until they start to experience symptoms of disease.”

The Social Success

Unger’s findings in the MacArthur Studies of Successful Aging showed that individuals with stronger social ties were more likely to age successfully. “In our increasingly computerized society, we need to take steps to ensure that people don’t become socially isolated and sedentary,” she says. She recommends community-based programs and activities to promote healthy behaviors and social supports.

In his own life, Bass recognizes the importance of social relationships. He considers himself “reasonably religious” and sometimes calls on church members for assistance, while being a good neighbor himself to shut-ins in his community. Although his children are geographically scattered, he maintains close contact with them.

“Even though we have our ups and downs, our marriage is positive because we have each other to confide in, listen to and thrash out problems as they arise,” Bass says. “We use each other as a sounding board.”

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