Successful Aging

The term “successful aging” first appeared in professional literature in 1961, in the inaugural issue of The Gerontologist. While much has been written about the concept of “successful aging” since then, there is not a single universally adopted or accepted definition of successful aging. A problem using the term “successful” is that people who are facing challenges and limitations might view their aging as failure.

Other commonly used terms, all of which convey different meanings, include “Normal Aging”, “Aging Well”, and “Healthy Aging”. These type of terms are often used in an attempt to provide a model of aging and can include longevity, health, happiness, or satisfaction. In a landmark book by Rowe and Kahn (1998) based on their MacArthur study of 1,189 older adults, the researchers describe a model of successful aging that has served as an often-referenced model of aging. The authors conclude that the following elements comprise “successful aging”:

  Avoidance of disease
  Maintaining high cognitive and physical function
  Engagement with life

According to an article entitled “Successful Aging” (Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, July 2002), specific predictors of successful aging include: regular physical activity, social engagement, freedom from chronic illness and feeling of self-worth.

Recent expanded ideas of successful aging include:

-  The ability of people to adapt to change as we age
-  To accomplish goals
-  To have feelings of well-being (VonFaber, et al., 2001)
-  Independence, control, dignity, and no suffering are key elements (Glass, 2003).

Clearly not everyone will meet the various criteria listed above. That is not to suggest that these people are aging failures or cannot age well. The challenge and opportunity is to steer people away from the negative aspects of aging if they do not believe they “fit” into a criteria or have the potential to do so.


-  A higher proportion of older people are living significantly longer and aging more successfully than ever before.

-  Marital satisfaction does not appear to be significantly affected by retirement.

-  More than 80% of older adults (65+) are healthy enough to carry out their normal daily activities.

-  Creative expression in older adults may meet developmental needs and help them deal with conflicts and losses.

(All of the above answers are TRUE. Take heart in the belief that each individual is unique and their aging experinece will also be unique.)

Success is in the eye of the beholder. A study by the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging surveyed older adults about medical and psychological health. Many participants had illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes (those often seen as “sick” old people) and 25% had mental health problems. Despite illness and disability, they rated themselves as 8.4 on a scale of 1-10 as successful agers! The authors conclude that “optimism and effective coping styles are perhaps more important than other measures such as health and wellness. Moreover, the best indicator of aging successfully was not physical health, but attitude.


Evelyn L Fitzwater, DSN, RN
Associate Professor Emerita
Associate Director of the
College of Nursing
University of Cincinnati

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