Since the 1960s, gerontologists have been developing conceptual social frameworks or to identify and elaborate ideal outcomes of the aging process of human beings. One of the most commonly used terms to describe a good old age is successful aging, introduced by Havighurst (1961). The concept of successful aging is central to gerontology, and the article by Havighurst appeared as the ﬁrst conceptual piece in the ﬁrst issue of The Gerontologist, one of the profession’s prime journals.
Interest in successful aging has remained high through the successive decades. However, there is no single well-accepted deﬁnition of successful aging that has stood the test of time (which is not surprising, given the ambiguity of the term success itself).
- Havighurst (1961) deﬁned it as adding life to the years and getting satisfaction from life.
- Rowe and Kahn (1987) deﬁned it in terms of multiple physiological and psychosocial variables.
- Ryﬀ (1982), a psychologist, deﬁned successful aging as positive or ideal functioning related to developmental work over the life course.
- Fisher (1992) interviewed 19 senior center participants age 62–85 and found that they tended to deﬁne successful aging in term of strategies for coping.
- Gibson (1995) stated that successful aging referred to reaching one’s potential and arriving at a level of physical, social, and psychological well-being in old age that is pleasing to both oneself and others.
- In the Encyclopedia of Aging, Palmore (1995) says that a comprehensive deﬁnition of successful aging would combine survival (longevity), health (lack of disability), and life satisfaction (happiness).
- Additionally, some gerontologists have discussed similar issues using different terms such as adjustment or adaptation to aging. The shifting meanings of successful aging have paralleled changes in prevailing theories of social and psychological aspects of aging, because ideas of what constitutes successful aging are implicitly contained in each theory.
- physical health
- financial security
- productivity and employment
- coping well and an optimistic outlook
- staying involved in activities and with people who bring meaning and support.
The longevity component of successful aging has been studied through research on causes of mortality and longevity. There have been numerous studies of factors associated with mortality, and a few studies of predictors of longevity. Predictors of longevity include being female; being physically active; not smoking; having good cognitive functioning; higher than average socioeconomic status; high levels of social activity; life satisfaction, and work satisfaction; a high happiness rating; and satisfying sexual activity. In general, the predictors of longevity also predict better health (less disability). This is contrary to the popular theory that greater longevity causes greater disability.
Other studies have focused on factors associated with life satisfaction. These factors include good health, higher than average socioeconomic status, being single or married (as opposed to widowed, divorced, or separated), and high levels of social activity (especially organizational activity). Lawton found that the factors most closely correlated with feelings of well-being were health and activity level.
Usually, there is little or no relationship between life satisfaction and age, race, sex, or employment—once controls are made for health and income. The lack of relationship to age is explained by Brandstädter and Greve as being due to three interdependent processes that older persons use to maintain their life satisfaction as they grow older: assimilation (instrumental coping to attain desired goals), accommodation (changing desired goals), and immunization (filtering out threatening information). A series of analyses of studies of the causes of happiness (e.g., Okun, Stock, Haring, and Witter) also found that health (especially self-rated health), was the most potent correlate of happiness. Achieved social status variables (such as income), as well as lifestyle variables (such as social activity and housing), were modestly related to happiness.
There have been few longitudinal studies of the predictors of happiness or life satisfaction. In the Second Duke Longitudinal Study, the strongest predictors of life satisfaction were health, social activity, and sexual enjoyment. There is considerable overlap between these two sets of predictors: both longevity and satisfaction were predicted by health, higher socioeconomic status, social activity, and sexual enjoyment.
An analysis of the predictors of successful aging in the Second Duke Longitudinal Study of Aging (Palmore) defined successful aging as survival to age seventy-five and being generally happy. Multiple regression analysis found that the significant independent predictors of successful aging were secondary group activity (organizational groups and reading), work satisfaction, physical activity, physical abilities, and happiness. These findings support the activity theory of aging, in that two of the strongest explanatory predictors of successful aging were group activity and physical activity. There is probably a reciprocal causal relationship between these variables: those who remain active are more likely to be healthy and happy, and vice versa.
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