Four Factors that Determine Successful Aging

A windsurfer in Antigua. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
A windsurfer in Antigua. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

“Everyone wants to age successfully; however, the definition and criteria of successful aging remain vague,” says an article in Gerontologist (Feb 2015).

American Journal of Preventive Medicine (April 2005) looked at eight studies published between 1985 and 2003 that reported statistical associations between baseline determinants and healthy aging outcome.

Six behavioral determinants were found to make a positive difference in a person’s life. These were: smoking status, physical activity level, body mass index, diet, alcohol use, and health practices.

In an article published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ December 11, 2012) by Séverine Sabia and associates looked at the influence of individual and combined healthy behaviours on successful aging.

They concluded that although individual healthy behaviours are moderately associated with successful aging, their combined impact is substantial. In fact they saw clear evidence of the importance of healthy behaviours for successful aging.

It is estimated by 2031, more than 20 per cent of Canadians will be senior citizens. These seniors will have chronic pain, serious age-related diseases and disability. This will cripple our health care system.

It is not too late to advise our patients to pursue healthy lifestyle. In the U.K. Sabia and colleagues carried out an observational study. Participants were 10,308 men and women aged 35 to 55 years.

Successful aging was defined as being alive at 60 years of age and beyond; having no history of coronary artery disease, cancer, stroke or diabetes. These individuals have good cognitive, physical, respiratory and cardiovascular function without disability, and good mental health.

Difficulty of doing a study like this is that there is no consensus definition for successful aging. Sabia and colleagues assessed whether engaging in four healthy behaviours during midlife influences a person’s ability to age successfully. These are:

  1. Regular physical activity
  2. Consuming fruits and vegetables daily
  3. Drinking alcohol moderately
  4. Never smoking

Moderate alcohol consumption and not smoking have well-known health benefits. But the apparent benefits of physical activity and healthy diets, which were not always evident in previous studies, were impressive, says the article.

There was a relatively large beneficial effect from physical activity (≥ 2.5 hours/week of moderate activity, or ≥ 1 hour/week of vigorous activity), which supports the notion that even small amounts of regular activity may have important health effects.

Similarly, although the number of fruits and vegetables to be eaten daily was not quantified, consumption of at least some amount each day appears to have an important association with successful aging. It would be interesting to know whether more servings of fruits and vegetables has a stronger effect and whether there is a dose–response relation, says the article.

To summarize: Sabia and colleagues found that four behaviours increase the odds of living in good health beyond 60 years of age: regular physical activity, eating fruits and vegetables daily, drinking alcohol moderately and never smoking.

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