Plan ahead for successful aging, researcher says
For many people, the prospect of aging is scary and uncomfortable, but Florida State University Assistant Professor Dawn Carr says that research reveals a few tips that can improve our chances of a long, healthy life.
Carr, who joined FSU's Department of Sociology and the Pepper Institute on Aging and Social Policy this fall, is working to identify social programs and policy solutions that improve and maintain quality of life as people age.
"The ultimate goal is to set people up for having a good life for as long as possible in ways that are meaningful and productive," she said.
As a gerontologist, Carr studies the biological, cognitive and social processes involved in aging and the ways that societies construct systems to accommodate aging populations. Carr's specialization in social gerontology means she pays particular attention to the idea of "successful aging," or the ways that people can continue to lead fulfilling, emotionally satisfying lives as they get older.
Fundamental to understanding aging from the perspective of a social gerontologist is the important distinction between "successful aging" and pop cultural or cosmetic ideas about "anti-aging."
"Anti-aging is a movement that views youth as the best state of being," Carr said. "It's focused on the idea that good agers are those who look, act and seem young."
Conversely, the idea of successful aging is based on the notion that getting older can be a healthy and positive process—that it can yield its own unique experiences and outlooks. Proponents of successful aging ideas argue that, with adequate and deliberate preparation, late-adulthood can be a time of increased self-actualization.
Carr, who previously served as a research associate at Stanford's Center on Longevity, has published extensively on the subject of successful aging.
"What my research has done is to try and understand the shifts in the way we live as we get older," Carr said. "What I'm trying to understand is what we can do to keep health and cognitive performance up for as long as possible."
Carr shared a few basic tips for becoming a successful ager.
Get a College Degree
There is no more crucial variable in the formula of successful aging than education. Research has repeatedly demonstrated the indispensible value of meaningful educational experiences, and especially of attaining a college degree.
"Education has been the biggest predictor of aging outcomes for a very long time," Carr said. "You just can't hold a candle to number of years of education and its relationship to any outcome related to aging. It's hard for me to ever imagine that education wouldn't be beneficial to health, well-being and aging well."
Eating well can have significant, measurable effects on aging outcomes. It's important to find a healthy diet that works for your individual lifestyle.
"There are a lot of diets that work well, but none of them involve eating a ton of fast food," Carr said. "It's important to use nutrition in a way that doesn't result in bad outcomes like heart disease and diabetes, but that can vary from person to person."
There is no substitute for a consistent exercise regimen.
"Exercise is crucial over the long term," she said. "You can start at anytime throughout your life but it's important to continue as much as possible. There's no evidence that you can do too much, and exercise seems to be one of the few things that, for the average person with normal brain matter, keeps cognitive performance up later in life."
Stay Socially Connected
Quality of social connection is one of the most reliable predictors of well-being in older individuals. This is particularly vital for older men, who tend to have a more difficult time forging important relationships as they age.
"Social connectedness is the thing that people probably pay the least attention to," Carr said. "Maintaining meaningful engagement with others through the duration of your life is crucial, and men aren't so good at it, which is a problem. For example, research shows that older men who are married tend to do better than those who aren't, so we know there's something important in having close connections later in life. The thing is, it's hard to have someone close to you later in life if you've never spent any time cultivating meaningful relationships with others."
Carr recommends joining formal community groups as a way of ensuring sustained connection as we age.
"Embedding yourself in formal organizations like church, volunteer programs or book clubs can be a great way to cultivate relationships," she said.
It's never too early to begin making financial arrangements for later life. While structures of economic inequality often make it difficult for some to plan in the long term, the prudent choice is always to begin considering your late-life finances as soon as possible.
"Being poor in later life is not good for your health," Carr said. "A lot of people don't have control over that, which is a huge deal. But one thing we know to be true is that if you have a sufficient income, that's pretty critical in improving outcomes. You have a lot working against you if you don't have the money to maintain your well-being over time."