Aging Well

Allen Weissby Allen Weiss, MD, MBA, FACP, FACR
President and CEO, NCH Healthcare System

Every day in our nation, 10,000 baby boomers turn 65. (And I’m one who’s reached that milestone.) As a result, myths about aging, examples of how to age well, and just aging in general are increasingly popular subjects.

Two years ago we shared Misconceptions About Aging, on these same pages. Why Everything You Think About Aging May Be Wrong, in the Wall Street Journal a couple of months ago, surveyed the same topic and created some interesting conversations locally. (As you may have noticed, no one is getting any younger!)


  • Avoid tobacco.
  • Develop good adjustment or coping skills.
  • Maintain a healthy diet.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Maintain strong social relationships.
  • Pursue education.

Also, as we have learned so well from our Blue Zones Project colleagues, 80 percent of our health is related to what we do to ourselves. We can blame only 20 percent of our illnesses on our parents, namely our genetic make-up.


1. Emotions. Our emotions control much of our lives, including how well we age. We can create environments which are either beneficial or harmful for our health and well-being. When I was a medical student at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, we were taught at the world-famous Psychiatric Institute that depression is more common in the elderly as health declines and friends become disabled and die. That may have been true then, but “current research indicates that emotional well-being improves until the 70s, when it levels off. Even centenarians report overall high levels of well-being,” according to the same Wall Street Journal article noted above.

A Stanford professor concluded that, “Contrary to the popular view that youth is the best time of life, the peak of emotional life may not occur until well into the seventh decade.” That is good news for Southwest Florida as we are increasing our average life expectancy with the Blue Zones Project. Focusing on the positive and being engaged in purposeful activities are commonalities for health and healthy aging.

2. Learning function. Mental ability does not decease in the elderly. Elderly brains learn, but possibly are exposed to too much, according to a study from Brown University’s Neuroscience Department. Older learners retained the mental flexibility to learn new tasks but were not as good as younger subjects at filtering out irrelevant information. Older brains may have a “storage problem” as existing important information that is already stored doesn’t leave enough room for new information. To filter out irrelevant information, older folks generally prefer a less cluttered and quieter environment to learn, innovate and create.

Also, having a positive attitude towards new adventures and additional learning improves performance. The opposite is also true—pessimists and those without self-confidence do worse on formal learning or memory tests.

3. Productivity. Older workers are good workers and now make up 22 percent of our workforce. This is a 10 percent increase over the last 22 years. The vast majority of academic studies show virtually no relationship between age and job performance, according to a University of Akron professor. In auto manufacturing a study showed older workers committed fewer major errors.

4. Loneliness. A major cause of disability and death in the elderly is loneliness. Even though social circles contract as we age, true friendships tend to improve with age. The co-author of a 2004 study that found older adults have “a higher rate of close ties than younger people,” and fewer “problematic relationships that cause them distress.” Older adults typically report better marriages, more supportive friendships, less conflict with children and siblings, and closer ties with members of their social networks than younger adults.

We tend to pare down our relationships after age 50 to those who we feel really close to so we can maximize the remaining relationships.  Loved ones mean more than ever, which is why grandparenting is so special.

5. Creativity. We are more innovative as we have so much more experience to call upon. True, in certain academic fields such as pure mathematics and theoretical physics, major contributions are typically attributed to younger folks. (These younger creative people may have better problem-solving skills.) However, contributions in most other areas—arts, music, academics, philosophy, leadership, and other experience-dependent disciplines—are improved by contributions of older folks who have had a world of knowledge to sharpens their intellect and increase creativity. Indeed, wisdom does increase with age.

6. Exercise. Regular physical activity delivers a number of benefits for older folks, according to the Mayo Clinic’s “Healthy Lifestyle”  website. Exercise can help prevent weight gain or help maintain weight loss. It combats heart disease and high blood pressure. It gives you an emotional lift and improves your mood. It boosts energy, can put the spark back in your sex life, and promotes better sleep. And physical activity is also a fun way to spend time, especially if you’re outdoors doing something that makes you happy.

There are extra benefits for runners, who live longer than nonrunners, according to the Copenhagen City Heart Study which followed folks since 1976. Male runners added 6.2 years and women runners 5.6 years. You don’t have to run long or fast; the optimal group jogged at a comfortable pace for 2.4 hours per week.

An Iowa State study showed the death rate for runners was 30-45 percent below non-runners. Their recommendation was no more than 30 miles per week which equates to 50 or 60 minutes per day with at least one day of rest. Even 5 or 10 minutes per day at modest speeds was beneficial.

Positive outlook, curiosity, creativity, productivity, being connected, having purpose, being involved, and exercising appropriately are all
positive attributes which contribute to aging well.

We have opportunities to change the course of our lives at all stages of our lives. Having the right mind-set about aging can make a huge change for the better.

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