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Successful Aging: Age is just a number … for many, but not all

We need to resist societal messages that make assumptions about who we are or what we can do based on age.


Q. People often remark that age is just a number. We assume anyone who exercises, has a healthy diet and stays actively engaged in professional and other pursuits will live forever. I have done all of these and put in thousands of miles of running (with scars to prove it) and believe and certainly feel age is more than just a number. Am I missing something? B.J.

From my perspective, that phrase is in response to ageism, a cultural norm in our society. It suggests that what we are doing, thinking or believing is different from what society expects from us based solely on our age. So we say, “Age is just a number,” implying age will not hold us back.

Here are some examples.

The workplace: Many older workers are defying cultural norms that expect them to retire at age 62 or 65. Older workers comprise over one-third of the labor force; the fastest-growing segment is the age 70-plus group. They are working for income, but also for social connections, the work itself and a sense of purpose.  

Entrepreneurship: According to the Kauffman Foundation, the second-largest growth of entrepreneurs is among those ages 55 to 65. Additionally, this older cohort is more successful than their younger counterparts, per a Forbes report. Their chronological age is not deterring them from their vision and ambition. 

The artists: Many great masters created some of their greatest works in their later years such as Matisse and Picasso. AARP documents instances of lawyers, teachers and marketers who have moved on and become successful artists. For these folks, age is just a number. We have a local example with Arthur C. Bartner, retired director of the USC Marching Band. He embraced a career in music for the past 50 years and has become an accomplished artist with requests for his oil paintings. For him, age clearly is just a number. 

The students: In California, more than 34,000 people over the age of 50 are enrolled in our public colleges and universities. They are changing careers, pursuing unexplored passions, unfinished degrees or degrees they did not have the opportunity to start. For them, their age is just a number.   

Fashion: Martha Stewart made history as the oldest woman on the cover of Sports Illustrated annual swimsuit edition. She was asked by Page Six Style about dressing “for one’s age.” She answered, “Dressing for whose age?” “I’ve dressed the same since I was 17. If you look at my pictures on my Instagram, I look pretty much the same.” For Stewart, age is just a number.     

These individuals have one thing in common. They are high-functioning even if they have an ongoing condition.  

“I don’t think anyone with heart disease that threatens their existence would tell you that age is just a number. They probably don’t hum that to themselves as they take their medications and get their blood pressure checked,” writes Carolyn Rosenblatt of Forbes magazine (March 29, 2024). 

We can think about age in two parts: chronological age and functional age. Chronological age is the number of years that we have lived on this planet. Functional age is what we are able to do according to benchmarks considered normal for an age category.  Parts of one’s body can physically age faster or slower than one’s actual age. You can be 70 and function as a 50-year-old; you can be 50 and function like a 70-year-old. That’s looking at factors such as physical fitness, cognitive ability, emotional well-being and overall health.

Aging is a declining process, a gradual one. It is easy to feel old when age-related declines become more prominent or extreme, such as feeling less energetic, having diminished hearing and vision, reduced lung capacity and changes in the immune system.  That rate of decline depends on a combination of genetics, lifestyle, sleep, stress and more. Fortunately, we know that healthy lifestyles can slow the process. 

Getting older is not the same as being ill. Yet experiencing both at the same time can be challenging. Furthermore, many diseases seem to accelerate the aging process — which is manifested as declines in functionality and reduced quality of life.

So yes, age is just a number most often for high-functioning older adults. For those with a long-term disability or suffering from loneliness and isolation or multiple age-related declines, aging can be more than a number; it’s a feeling.    

We need to resist societal messages that make assumptions about who we are or what we can do based on age. It’s function that counts.   

Thank you, B.J., for your thoughtful question. Stay well and please try walking rather than running marathons. Of course, be kind as always.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging and the new retirement with academic, corporate and nonprofit experience. Contact Helen with your questions and comments at  Visit Helen at and follow her on


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