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What exactly does successful aging mean, and what can I do to achieve it?

I am an 82-year-old healthy widower and have two basic questions. From your perspective, what is successful aging and what are the essentials to achieve it? Many thanks. B.R.

Successful aging is considered a prominent theory and one of the most positive and effective ideas in the field of gerontology. Its focus is on how to live better in later life by expanding our healthy and functional years for as long as possible. However, there is no standard definition.

The concept is traced back to Renaissance texts, expanded in the 1950s and flourishing in the 1990s with the work of Dr. John Rowe and Robert Kahn. These two researchers followed 1,000 successful agers over an eight-year period and examined their common characteristics: they avoided disease and disability (meaning risk factors); they were physically and mentally active and were socially engaged. These three features were considered elements of aging successfully. The definition has been criticized because it is based on longevity and dismisses the presence of disease and disability.

Other definitions have emerged. The academic literature describes successful aging as the process of aging with expected activities and behaviors that one should engage in or demonstrate. The question is, “Who determines those expected behaviors and activities?”

Critics have expressed a problem with the term “success” since with success comes failure. Compared to a game, that means we have winners and losers depending on how one is observed or diagnosed. Perhaps the largest problem is that the models of success/failure and expected behaviors/ activities seem to exclude those living with some limitation or are dependent because of a disease, accident, genetic disorder or age-related declines.

Aging successfully is influenced by environmental factors. These include having access to healthcare services, nutritious food, transportation and living in a clean-air environment. Finally, the models overlook how older adults define the term for themselves. Most would describe it according to their life experiences, perceptions and personal feelings; it’s subjective.

I asked several people how they would define successful aging. Here are some of their answers.

  • “I don’t think about it; it’s not in my head since I don’t feel age has had much effect on my life.” (Age 67)

  • “I am aging successfully when I am functioning at my best self, am able to live a meaningful life, making a contribution for a better world and have close relationships with family and friends.” (Age 83)

  • “I feel I am aging successfully when I live with no regrets and have a life of contentment.” (Age 65)

  • “When I feel strong, flexible, without pain and can do the things I like to do like ride my horses, I feel I am aging successfully.” (Age 67)

  • “I am aging successfully when I can chase the children down the hall at school and play with them on the floor.” (Age 55)

  • “Successful aging is all about psychology for me. That means dealing with things that happen and making the necessary adjustments.” (Age 70)

  • “Successful aging is all about attitude, accepting what you cannot control. I feel I am aging successfully when I fall apart gracefully.” (Age 81)

  • “To me aging successfully means maintaining my independence, continuing to do the things that are important to me and maintaining close contact with people I love.” (Age 80)

Despite the criticisms, successful aging is a catchy term; it’s optimistic, aspirational and has worked well as the title of this column for almost 20 years.

I view successful aging as optimal aging. That means doing our best to avoid the risks of illness and limitations and taking positive actions to slow the normal aging process. From my perspective, using a walker, being confined to a wheelchair or having a chronic condition does not exclude you from aging successfully or optimally. If you are engaged in behaviors that allow you to be as healthy and functional as possible, to me, you are aging successfully.

Thank you, B.R for your good question. We’ll save the discussion of the essentials for the next column. In the meantime, stay safe, be well and kind to yourself and others.

Helen Dennis is a nationally recognized leader on issues of aging, employment 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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