Researchers uncover factors associated with optimal aging
The findings underscore the importance of focusing on aging and older adults based on strength rather than disadvantage.
What are the keys to “successful” or optimal aging? A new study followed more than 7,000 middle-aged and older Canadians for about three years to identify factors associated with well-being as we age.
They found that those who were female, married, physically active and not obese, and those who had never smoked, had higher incomes and did not have insomnia, heart disease or arthritis were more likely to maintain excellent health during the study period. . and are 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 approximately three-year study period. These included the absence of memory problems or disabling chronic pain, the absence of any 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 delighted to learn that more than 70% of our sample maintained their excellent health status during the study period,” says first author Mabel Ho, a PhD student at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Sciences. Work (FIFSW) and the Institute of Life Course and Aging. “Our findings highlight the importance of focusing on aging and the elderly based on strengths rather than deficits. The media and research tend to ignore the positive and focus only on the problems.”
There was considerable variation in the prevalence of successful aging based on the age of the subjects at the start of the study. Three quarters of the respondents who were aged 55 to 64 at the beginning of the study maintained excellent health throughout the study. Among those aged 80 and over, approximately half remain in excellent health.
“Incredibly, half of those aged 80 and over maintained this exceptionally high level of cognitive, physical and emotional well-being over the three years of the study. This is wonderful news for seniors and their families who can anticipate that a steep decline is 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, policy makers and researchers to create environments that support a vibrant and healthy later life.”
Older adults who were obese were less likely to maintain good health in later life. Compared to older people who were obese, those who were of normal weight were 24% more likely to age optimally.
“Our findings are consistent with other studies that have found that obesity is associated with a range of physical symptoms and cognitive problems, and that physical activity also plays a key role in optimal aging,” says co-author David Burnes, associate professor at the University of Toronto’s FIFSW and Canadian chair for research on the prevention of elder abuse. “These findings highlight the importance of maintaining an appropriate body weight and leading an active lifestyle throughout life.”
Income was also an important factor. Only about half of those below the poverty line age 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 School of Social Work.
Lifestyle factors are associated with optimal health in later life. Older adults who had never smoked were 46% more likely to maintain excellent health compared to current smokers. Previous studies have shown that quitting smoking later in life could improve survival statistics, lung function and quality of life; lower rates of coronary events and reduction in respiratory symptoms. The study found that ex-smokers fared just as well as those who had never smoked, emphasizing that it is never too late to quit.
The study also found that being physically active 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.
The findings showed that subjects who never or rarely had sleep problems at baseline were 29% more likely to maintain excellent health during the study.
“It is clear that good sleep is an important factor as we age. Sleep problems impair cognitive, mental and physical health. There is strong evidence that an intervention called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is very beneficial for people living with insomnia,” says Esme Fuller-Thomson.
The study was recently published online, in International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. It uses longitudinal data from the baseline wave (2011-2015) and the first wave of follow-up (2015-2018) data from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA) to examine factors associated with optimal aging in the first two waves. In the CLSA, there were 7651 respondents who were aged 60 years or older at wave 2 and who were in optimal health during the baseline wave of data collection. The sample was limited to those who were in excellent health at baseline, which was only 45% of the subjects.
Reference: “Successful Aging Among Immigrant and Canadian-Born Older Adults: Findings from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA)” By Mabel Ho, Eleanor Pullenayegum, David Burnes, and Esme Fuller-Thomson, 13 Oct 2022, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.