The key to successful aging

by Leigh Walsh

Researchers say the social support network surrounding an older adult is a great predictor of their health status.

For many people, aging is seen as something that needs to be defeated. It is the enemy, and billions of dollars each year are spent on preventative measures to avoid it.

It may be hard to believe but the answers to successful aging may not lie in a bottle of anti-aging cream or in the hands of a plastic surgeon.

Many experts believe a simple companion you can confide in is a vital aspect of aging happily. Scott Wright, professor and director of gerontology at the University of Utah, echoes this opinion. “Social connections and the quality of relationships you can depend on are a key to aging,” Wright said.

Being physically active over the course of your life can also slow down the aging process. Wright said activities such as yoga and tai chi are very important for balance and coordination. Being physically active is a great preventative measure for certain illnesses and injuries.

Joseph Hansen, a 72-year-old retired accountant, credits his wife and his love of tennis for keeping him young.

“They both keep me on my toes,” said Hansen with a cheeky grin. “I found my soul-mate over 40 years ago and I am still as happy today as the day I met her.”

A recent study at the University of Rochester found that 7.6 million older adults feel the need for more social support in America. On hearing this statistic, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health, Hansen shook his head and sighed. He believes he is fortunate not to be one of these and he claims he would be lost without the support of those around him.

The researchers also examined the correlation between social support and health status in older adults. Their conclusion emphasized social support itself is an important feature of quality of life, and there is a need for social intervention among both healthy and ill older adult populations. Dependable relationships can make all the difference.

The ability to be independent is a value many Americans hold in very high regard. A common fear among the aging community is how their physical and mental well-being will change as they get older.

“I like to live in the present and not worry about the future,” Hansen said. “All I can do now is enjoy being healthy and being surrounded by fantastic support from family and friends. Who knows what can happen tomorrow?”

Why do almost 7.6 million older Americans feel they are lacking in social support? Is it our culture, or does the problem stem from multiple factors? Wright talked about areas of the world known as Blue Zones, where people live extraordinarily long and healthy lives.

Loma Linda, Calif., Sardinia, Italy, and Okinawa, Japan, are three of a handful of places that are considered Blue Zones. Researchers have not found one sole reason for the longevity of life in these regions of the world, but they have made some general observations.

The Blue Zones/AARP Vitality Project is sponsored by United Health Foundation. According to the Web site, there are six common factors among these places: no smoking, a plant-based diet, constant moderate physical activity, social engagement, legumes and at the top of their list: family. Blue Zone researchers claim family and a good social circle are great predictors of a healthy life.

Wright said 35,000 people reach the age of 65 every month in America and Utah has the fifth-largest population of elderly people. This “age tsunami” is causing major financial headaches for the government, which makes healthy aging as important now as it has ever been.

In the current economic climate, the generation of baby boomers is placing an extreme strain on Medicare and Social Security. If people are living a healthy lifestyle illness and injuries will be reduced, which will relieve the strain on government finances. The Social Security Administration recently stated that monthly Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits for more than 57 million Americans will not automatically increase in 2010. This will be the first year without an automatic Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) since they went into effect in 1975.

This nation is getting older and statistics show the aging population will continue to rise. Researchers at the University of Richmond stated, “Our findings outline the benefits of future efforts to reduce social isolation and improve social health among this large and fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population.” The elderly community should not become society’s forgotten population.