Just What is Successful Aging and How Does it Happen?

Facebooktwitterpinterestmailby feather

life-wheels copyHave you thought about what successful aging is? What it looks like? What does it take to age successfully? I’m sure that every person will have a different definition of what successful aging is but there are probably some recurrent themes in every definition – not to be a burden on my children; stay independent; keep my mental sharpness; be physically able to pursue my interests. These are all phrases I have heard over the years working in the senior living industry. The cartoon below depicts our societal view of aging.

Yes, it is good for a laugh, for we all know people who have followed this aging path. But did you know that only 5.2% of older people, at any one time, live in nursing homes as depicted in the last example? What about the other 94.8%? They are successfully aging. So what is their secret?

Lutheran Sunset Ministries (LSM) has partnered with Masterpiece Living (MPL) to help bring Successful Aging to LSM and improve the aging experience not only for our residents but also for the larger community of Clifton and Bosque County. MPL focuses on four components of living a successful well-balanced life: social, intellectual, physical and spiritual.

In the chart below, the solid line depicts the typical aging process; we are born, we mature, we live at peak performance for a few years then begin the long, downward trend beginning around age 50, until death occurs. We all know people who have aged like this. The dotted line is the goal for all of us. We have all known people who lived long, healthy lives and either died suddenly or died after a short illness. That is possible if we focus on living a life that encompasses and balances the four components mentioned earlier: social, intellectual, physical and spiritual. Each of these components plays a role in successful aging.



Humans are generally social creatures. Yes there are times when we need that quiet alone time to meditate and sort things out, but we need to be connected to people, whether it is family or friends. Good social connections add nine years to your life expectancy.  Loners are four times more likely to come down with a cold (Cohen 1977). Risk of death is two to three times higher in the socially isolated (Alameda County Studies 1964-present).  A Harvard Medical Study found loners had 16 times more cancers than other groups. Low social support increases Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) risk 1.5 to 2 times in both healthy and diagnosed patients with established CHD (Heather, et. al 2005). The number one factor that speeds aging is loneliness. Having few friends or weak social ties to the community is just as harmful as smoking a pack of cigarettes every day (BYU Study).

So what to do? Build five or more “deep” connections to increase well-being and longevity. Activity and involvement improves optimism and makes for a positive self-perception. Connections improve coping skills and increase the probability of high functional aging.  Being social gives you a general sense of well-being and self-appraised health increases with the number/quality of connections. People have a perception of feeling better. You need a sense of purpose and meaning in your life on your successful aging journey. Our mental attitude matters!


There are many studies being conducted about the brain and how it works. The key ingredient to having a healthy brain and for it to continue to work properly is to exercise it. Think of your brain as any other muscle — if you don’t use it, it gets weaker, flabby and out of shape. Our brain, to some extent, behaves the same way. Routine is bad because it doesn’t require us to think very hard. We can do routine things in our sleep.

How do we challenge our brain? Lifelong learning is key.  Be curious about the world around you, learn to do something new, take some classes, read and stay up-to-date with current events. Take your brain off auto pilot. Change up your daily routine. Work puzzles, crossword, Sudoku word scrambles. Challenge your brain with new and novel complex activities on a daily basis. Challenging your brain can produce new neural connections which can keep us sharp and ward off dementia. The key is to challenge your brain!


Move! On average, we burn 500 fewer calories a day than we did in 1950. All of our labor saving devices have been great for freeing up our time, but we tend to not do anything physical with the time we saved. Exercise! And if we exercise with others it provides more stimulation than exercise done alone. It also helps us socially if we exercise with others. The brain produces more neurons if we exercise and stimulate our minds and remember neurons help our brain work better. But you say, “I don’t have time for exercise.” See the following cartoon:


I think most of us can find time in our day to exercise if it is a priority. I tell people all the time, “You have to be able to get out of the chair. When you can’t get out of your chair you are on your way to an assisted living residence or a nursing home.” That is usually motivation to find time to do some form of exercise.

So, keys to getting started with exercise? Be realistic. Start off slow so you don’t have a negative experience. Did you know walking is the most popular form of exercise? It is also very good exercise. It is weight-bearing, aerobic and affordable. You just need a good pair of shoes.

Exercise also plays a role in helping keep our brain healthy. Scarmeas et al. 2009 found that older adults (mean age 77) who were in the top third in terms of getting physical exercise were 61% less likely to get dementia. Kramer et al. 2001 found that participating in a six-month walking program led to increased attention in 60-75 year old adults. Exercise lessens risk for premature death, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, colon cancer, depression, anxiety, obesity, stress and dementia. Exercise builds and maintains healthy bones, joints and muscles. It promotes psychological well-being and increases neural plasticity (helps brain health). In addition, people who exercise have faster wound healing and less permanent damage after brain surgery. Exercise increases the speed of reflexes and improves balance for those who have experienced a stroke. If you are trying to quit smoking it reduces the craving for nicotine. Most importantly, it could help older adults maintain their driving ability!


The spiritual component addresses how we view our place in the world and how we view our connection to others. It answers the question, what is my purpose in life? What is my outlook on life? It is a critical marker; we must find or maintain a deep meaning in life. We need a reason to get up in the morning! The spiritual component is very personal and has to be worked out by each person, but it helps us answer meaning of life questions.

I hope this view of successful aging is helpful for you as you make your way through this wonderful life we have!

Article by Rodney Rueter, CEO/president of Lutheran Sunset Ministries.

Facebooktwitterpinterestmailby feather

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *