- A recent study questioned previous definitions of healthy or successful aging may look like this when you take a wider perspective.
- To do this, the researchers observed older adults in Canada and identified a number of unique traits in people who age optimally.
- The researchers also investigated how well people age despite chronic diseases that can develop as they get older.
Previous research has often used a narrow definition of what healthy aging can look like.
A recent study by researchers from the University of Toronto has provided new insights into healthy aging by observing two distinct demographics in Canada: immigrants and Canadian-born older adults.
The authors of the study identified several characteristics associated with positive experiences later in life and can contribute to healthy aging, thus revising the definition of what successful aging means.
The results were recently published in the International Journal of Environmental Research.
Mabel Ho, a doctoral student at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and the Institute of Life Course and Aging at the University of Toronto and lead author of the study, told Medical News Today:
“Previous definitions of successful aging were very narrow and required that older adults be free from all diseases — only very few people
Ho explained that successful aging means that people are not limited in their ability to do everyday activities, regardless of whether they have a chronic illness.
Ho’s study defined healthy aging as the following characteristics:
- Ability to fulfill daily living activities (ADLs)
- Ability to perform instrumental daily life activities (IADLs)
- Freedom from mental illnesses and memory problems, freedom from
- Obstruction of chronic pain
- Self-assessment of happiness perception and physical health
- adequate social support
“I think most people would agree that the definition of successful aging is based on a psychological level, and physical functioning, social commitment, mental health, and wellbeing make intuitive sense. That is certainly what I will strive for as I get older.”
— Mabel Ho, PhD student and lead author of the study
Ritu Sadana, DSc, Head of Division for Aging and Health at the World Health Organization (WHO), who was not involved in the study, agreed that traditional standards for successful aging were limited in their scope.
“[The] WHO does not define healthy aging as disease-free. It’s a process and a continuum,” Dr. Sadana told MNT.
She explained that WHO is taking a close look at every component of healthy aging and is investigating measures that can increase the likelihood.
Successful aging in older adults
For the study, the researchers analyzed data from two different time periods from the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging (CLSA).
The data included 7,651 people who were 60 years of age or older when they began participating in the longitudinal study. Of the participants, 1,446 respondents were Canadian immigrants.
The study identified several characteristics associated with healthy aging, including people
, which to
- The start of data collection were younger
- had higher incomes
- were married
- not obese
- Never smoked
- had no sleep problems
- had, no heart disease or arthritis
- moderate or strenuous physical activity
Adjusted for 20 factors, the results showed that people born in Canada were around 24% more likely to age successfully than Canadian immigrants — even though most people in both groups met the study’s standards for healthy aging.
“The paper is interesting and adds to the scientific literature,” said Dr. Sadana.
“It includes some elements of healthy aging in its concepts and analyses, but it is also different from the way WHO both conceptualizes and operationalizes healthy aging. It’s great that researchers are thinking about analysing the wealth of CLSA.”
Limitations of population-based research
The authors note some limitations in the CLSA data on which their analysis was based.
CLSA did not ask participants any key questions that would have more accurately captured the mental state, well-being, and spiritual perspective of each person. All of these can be important indicators of quality of life.
Canadian minorities were under-represented in the CLSA, meaning that it was not possible to analyse the differences between them in the new study.
At the same time, well-educated people were over-represented. Four out of five people had post-secondary degrees or degrees, while less than half of Canadians over 65 had a similar level of education.
The CLSA was also conducted in English and French, the two official languages of Canada. As a result, CLSA did not record the experiences of immigrants who didn’t speak either language, a group that may face the biggest systemic barriers to healthy aging.
Finally, no further waves of data collection were available for this study. They suggest that future analyses based on more data could lead to more comprehensive insights.
Is there a secret to successful aging?
Healthy aging can be due to many factors, including genetics, lifestyle, the environment, and access to affordable healthcare.
In a 2016 research report, Dr. Sadana wrote that healthy aging is a question of equal health opportunity. For there to be healthy aging worldwide, social determinants and inequalities must also be addressed.
WHO, she said, aims to “empower policy makers in various sectors, as well as those working to improve coordinated health and care services for older people, to analyse their context and improve healthy ageing.”
Esme Fuller-Thomson, director of the Institute for Life Course & Aging, professor at FIFSW and lead researcher on the new study, told MNT that most people have several modifiable risk factors available that can contribute to successful aging:
“The good news in our study results is that there are several people who were at a healthy weight, were non-smokers and who exercised regularly were much more likely to age successfully. While you can’t change your age or genes, these are three key things you can do to make it more likely that you’ll stay in optimal health as you age.”