Researchers uncover factors associated with optimal agingThank you for reading this post, don't forget to subscribe!
The findings highlight the importance of a strength-based rather than deficit-based focus on aging and older adults.
What are the keys to “successful” or optimal aging? A new study followed more than 7,000 middle-aged and older Canadians for approximately three years to identify factors associated with well-being as we age.
They found that those who were female, married, physically active and non-obese, and those who had never smoked, had higher incomes and who did not have insomnia, heart disease or arthritis were more likely to maintain excellent health during the study period and less likely to develop disabling cognitive, physical or emotional problems.
As a baseline, the researchers selected participants who were in excellent health at the start of the roughly three-year study period. This includes the absence of memory problems or chronic debilitating pain, the absence of serious mental illness and the absence of physical disabilities that limit daily activities – as well as the presence of adequate social support and high levels of happiness and life satisfaction.
“We were surprised and pleased to learn that more than 70% of our sample maintained excellent health throughout the study period,” says first author Mabel Ho, a doctoral student in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Toronto. (FIFSW) and the Institute for Life Course and Aging. “Our findings highlight the importance of a strength-based, rather than deficit-based, focus on aging and older adults. The media and research tend to ignore the positive and focus only on the problems.
There was significant variation in the prevalence of successful aging based on the age of the respondents at the start of the survey. Three-quarters of respondents who were aged 55 to 64 at the start of the study period maintained excellent health during the study. Among those age 80 and older, roughly half remain in excellent health.
“Remarkably, half of those aged 80 and over maintained this extremely high bar of cognitive, physical and emotional well-being over the three years of the study. This is great news for older people and their families, who may have been expecting a steep decline to be inevitable for those aged 80 and over,” says Mabel Ho. “By understanding the factors associated with successful aging, we can work with older adults, families, practitioners, policymakers and researchers to create environments that support vibrant and healthy later life.”
Older adults who were overweight were less likely to maintain good health in later life. Compared to older adults who were obese, those of normal weight were 24% more likely to age optimally.
“Our findings are consistent with other studies that have found obesity is associated with a range of physical symptoms and cognitive problems, and that physical activity also plays a key role in optimal aging,” said co-author David Burns, associate professor at the University of Toronto’s FIFSW and Canada Research Chair in Elder Abuse Prevention. “These findings highlight the importance of maintaining an appropriate weight and leading an active lifestyle throughout life.”
Income was also an important factor. Only about half of those living below the poverty line are aging optimally, compared to three-quarters of those living above the poverty line.
“Although our study does not provide information about why low income is important, it is possible that inadequate income causes stress and also limits healthy choices such as optimal nutrition. Future research is needed to further explore this relationship,” says senior author Esme Fuller-Thomson, director of the Life Course and Aging Institute and professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.
Lifestyle factors are associated with optimal health in later life. Older adults who have never smoked are 46% more likely to maintain excellent health than current smokers. Previous studies have shown that quitting smoking later in life can improve survival statistics, lung function and quality of life; lower rates of coronary events and reduction of respiratory symptoms. The study found that ex-smokers did as well as those who had never smoked, highlighting that it is never too late to quit.
The study also found that engaging in physical activity is important for maintaining good health in later life. Older adults who engaged in moderate to vigorous physical activity were 35% to 45% more likely to age well, respectively.
The findings showed that respondents who never or rarely had sleep problems at baseline were 29% more likely to maintain excellent health during the study.
“It’s clear that good sleep is an important factor as we age. Sleep problems undermine cognitive, mental and physical health. There is strong evidence that an intervention called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is very helpful for people living with insomnia,” says Esme Fuller-Thomson.
The study was recently published online in International Journal of Environmental and Public Health Research. It uses longitudinal data from the baseline wave (2011-2015) and the first follow-up wave (2015-2018) of data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study of Aging (CLSA) to examine factors associated with optimal aging in the first two waves. In the CLSA, there were 7651 respondents aged 60 years or older at Wave 2 who were in optimal health at the time of the main wave of data collection. The sample was limited to those who were in excellent health at baseline, which was only 45% of those surveyed.
Reference: “Successful Aging Among Immigrant and Canadian-Born Older Adults: Findings from the Canadian Longitudinal Study of Aging (CLSA)” by Mabel Ho, Eleanor Pulenayegum, David Burns and Esme Fuller-Thomson, 13 Oct 2022. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health Research.
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