Survey challenges conventional wisdom, perception about aging

AARP and National Geographic researchers found Americans to be positive about aging.

This past June, American Association of Retired Persons and National Geographic published results of their joint “Second Half of Life Study” in the AARP Bulletin.

Ron Smith Maricopa

AARP and National Geographic were curious how Americans perceive aging. Researchers found results to be positive, writing, “Life is good for older Americans — especially those over 60.” Interestingly, they conclude with confidence, “the most prevalent opinions and stereotypes of aging were proven wrong!”

Health redefined
About two-thirds people in their 50s and 80 percent of people in their 80s are living with one or more serious or chronic health condition. Yet, despite diabetes and other chronic conditions, “78% to 83% rated their health good, very good or excellent!” There is a survival benefit to resilience. One respondent said, “Good health is being able to get up each day and do the things that you plan to do, and not dread them.”

Respondents ages 60 to 80-plus tended to get more restful sleep. They better maintain heart health, weight and physical stamina. Many are doing strength training. Is this due to more available time or a stronger commitment to health and resiliency?

Respondents feared loss of mobility and mental decline more than chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart disease. That’s a powerful message that many doctors, health advisors and families don’t always hear. Providers must describe implications for the patient’s independence.

Money perceptions
Respondents clearly showed finances remain a big concern, due to lack of clarity regarding the future of Social Security and loss of private pension plans. Most people in their 40s don’t understand the importance of Social Security once they hit 80.

The pursuit of happiness
Nearly three times more people aged 80 and older say they’re living their ‘best possible life’ or close to it, than younger adults. Happiness may have more to do with optimism. People tend to prioritize positive experiences as they get older. Optimism increases with fulfillment or the promise of it .

Friends are great, but family comes first. They’re the people you rely on. If you find yourself with limited family, consider turning to friends as a “chosen family” for the long haul. Relationships are important to your sense of joy.

Life stages
This survey also focuses on the shift from midlife crises in the 40s. The survey calls the 60s the watershed decade “when it comes to shifts in attitudes we’ve described about longevity, relationships, well-being and wealth.” Concerns about life-expectancy may drop, but other concerns arise regarding cognitive skills, eyesight and mental prowess. Evaluating relationships becomes more important along with a focus on physical health.

Our final years
AARP Chief Public Policy Officer Debra Whitman says people aren’t afraid of death. The survey confirms fear of death decreases with age. Of greater concern is controlling circumstances. Whitman says, “people want choice and self-control when dying.”
One respondent said aging “can be good if you have the right attitude.” On the other hand, “it can be terrible if you resent it and think of all the aches and pains.”
People in their 70s and 80s are great examples of resilience. They become more realistic about changes in life and are more prone to be happy.

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins said the study is packed with information that largely contradicts conventional wisdom about aging in America. Answers from more than 2,500 Americans reveal “many negative beliefs about aging are not only incorrect but also nearly opposite of the truth.”

Jenkins is on a mission “to disrupt aging, to challenge outdated stereotypes and attitudes and to find new solutions that help people live better as they age.” Research, such as this survey, provides value for planning and policies.

The bottom line, from Whitman: “Most people are optimistic about aging and do not see it as a bad thing.”

Ron Smith is a living-in-place advocate, a member of the Age-Friendly Maricopa Advisory Committee, a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist and a Certified Living in Place Professional.