Aging & Longevity
What is successful aging?
Gerontologists still trying to reach agreement
Is the bottom line of ‘successful
aging’ for many elderly Americans simply surviving with reasonable
cognition and some mobility, or is it much broader
16, 2015 – The debate over defining “successful aging” is raging again
among the professionals in the field of gerontology. Despite books,
years of research and numerous analytical articles in the past, there
are 16 articles in the latest issue of The Gerontologist. One
suggests those in the U.S. define it in more multidimensional terms than
do most scholars.
"With an enhanced understanding of
what successful aging is, we will be in a stronger position to develop
interventions that will enable more people to age successfully," stated
Gerontologist Editor Rachel Pruchno, PhD, in the issue's opening
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"The sheer number of people
comprising the baby boom generation transformed academic interest in
successful aging to a public policy imperative. Now more than ever, it
is critical to develop science that empowers people to experience the
best old age possible."
The topic of successful aging
reached new heights of popularity following a 1987 study by John W.
Rowe, MD, and Robert L. Kahn, PhD, titled "Human Aging: Usual and
Successful," which appeared in Science. They followed up with a
subsequent article in The Gerontologist (and later book) titled
Their work helped the field of
gerontology evolve from one arguably fixated on loss to one
characterized by heterogeneity and the potential for growth. In the
latter piece, they wrote that "successful aging is multidimensional,
encompassing the avoidance of disease and disability, the maintenance of
high physical and cognitive function, and sustained engagement in social
and productive activities."
Now, through a series of 16
articles in The Gerontologist, top researchers in the field have
looked back at the progress made over the past 28 years -- and whether
or not Rowe and Kahn's analysis is still relevant. Some of the journal's
authors even suggest that the concept of successful aging should be
abandoned, pointing to social inequalities and the problems associated
with labeling a person as an "unsuccessful ager."
The issue includes a number of
groundbreaking studies involving several segments of the U.S.
For example, one of the articles
reports on the first study to examine physical and mental health quality
of life among the older LGBT population.
Another entry uses queer theory to
explore the experiences of transgender persons who contemplate or pursue
a gender transition later in life.
A further article addresses the
growing body of literature suggesting that black women experience a
number of social challenges that may present as barrier to aging
Together, they demonstrate the
necessity for gerontological theory to address how social, cultural,
behavioral, and environmental constructs affect physical health and
psychological well-being while guiding policy, health care services, and
research among diverse race and gendered populations.
also contains articles examining successful aging across cultures. It
reports that young, middle-aged, and older lay persons from the U.S. and
Germany have quite similar concepts of successful aging, which they view
in far more multidimensional terms than do established scientific
This demonstrates that laypersons'
views of successful aging pose scientific challenges because they
include a much wider variety of factors than are considered in most
A separate study examines labor
force participation rates and life expectancy among Organization for
Economic Co-operation and Development Countries -- and finds that member
nations with older adults who remain active in a paid work capacity tend
to have elders who live longer.
"Nearly three decades after Rowe
and Kahn's initial article was published, it is incumbent on
gerontologists to use the conceptual and empirical knowledge base that
now exists to develop consensus about what successful aging is and how
it should be measured," Pruchno wrote.
"We should approach this goal
knowing that our measures will not be perfect, but at least our findings
will be comparable. Advancing this work will help us learn how
individuals can experience successful aging regardless of their social
or health conditions."
is a peer-reviewed publication of The
Gerontological Society of America (GSA), which is the nation's
oldest and largest interdisciplinary organization devoted to research,
education, and practice in the field of aging. The principal mission of
the Society is to advance the study of aging and disseminate information
among scientists, decision makers, and the general public. GSA's
structure also includes a policy institute, the National Academy on an
Aging Society, and an educational branch, the Association for
Gerontology in Higher Education.